Leadership
September 13, 2012

Recruiting a better business bureaucracy

Leadocracy
Geoff Smart
Greenleaf, 163 pages, $20.50

In this column, I usually share books with techniques that I think can be helpful to readers, and that they may want to delve into in more detail later. This month, I’ll break from the tradition and look at a book that Canadian government executives should be aware of, but which doesn’t have any particularly tempting techniques, is wedded to the American scene (even though that is taken as a proxy for the world), and is startlingly naïve and perhaps pernicious in its view of government management.

It’s by Geoff Smart, an author I saluted for his book on recruitment, Who, which I looked at several years ago in these pages. But he has moved beyond his area of expertise in this work, which will no doubt be comforting reading to many businesspeople, the Republican politicians he has connections to, and government bashers in Canada, which is why you should be familiar with it.  

Smart, who by his own admission had been cynical about government for 40 years, received a surprise invitation late in 2010 from the newly-elected governor of his state of Colorado, John Hickenloper, to help with recruiting the best people possible for the new cabinet. He was inclined to decline, but didn’t, and went ahead with a meeting with the businessman-turned-governor and his chief of staff, Roxanne White, who had been CEO of a not-for-profit and seems to have impressed Smart with her tough-as-nails, can-do attitude, even if she wasn’t from the almighty private sector that is glorified throughout the book for its wonderful leaders.
 
Smart was surprised when the governor indicated he wanted the best people for his cabinet, without regard to partisan affiliation. Of course, that wouldn’t travel to Canada, appealing as the idea is at first blush, since cabinets in our system are made up of elected partisans, with any outsiders invited in expected to run for election as part of the governing party. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper drafted David Emerson into his cabinet from the Liberal party – the closest we have come in recent years to such a non-partisan appointment – it was not greeted with universal applause, despite Emerson’s previous experience as industry minister and in business executive ranks.

Smart was also bowled over when the governor referred to citizens as customers. I was bowled over, too – in 2010, how could anyone be shocked at citizens being called customers by a politician, given that fad is about a decade old? It was a sign of how out-of-touch he was.   

Smart believes the number one problem preventing us from living a better life is that government is on the wrong path – a path marked by a sign that reads bureaucracy. He is still entranced by the copy his father gave him as a child of Free to Choose, Milton Friedman’s epistle to free markets, which deplores the inevitable subpar outcomes provided by bureaucracy. “Unfortunately the challenges of fixing government today typically lie in the hands of bureaucratic non-leaders we have put in office. These are people who never had a chance to develop the skill of leadership. People who have not analyzed complex problems, allocated scarce resources to their highest and best uses, and aligned people to take coordinated action to achieve the people’s goals. People who are not familiar with best practices of budgeting, hiring, strategic planning, continuous improvement, lean management, process improvement, customer satisfaction, goal setting and accountability,” he writes.

He seems to be referring to elected politicians there, but he does flip between those and government executives throughout the book, making the same accusations (unless they had a private sector career, in which case by implication they are apparently exonerated). In Canada, where noted management professor Henry Mintzberg has probed into government at length and found admirable leaders at all levels, we might have a different viewpoint. We also, of course, have seen government executives like Ed Clark, Paul Tellier and Michael Sabia move from success in government to success in business.

But Smart expects the solution to the number one problem he defines for America to come from the opposite transition. He asks readers to imagine their country had vast, untapped gold resources that could be used to improve everyone’s quality of life. “I believe that the vast pool of private sector leaders in this country are like that unused gold. There are so many amazing leaders in the private sector, but so few of them dare tread into government,” he writes.

He notes that six of the 50 U.S. governors have been successful private sector leaders before getting into government. “That is only 12 percent! The rest of the governors either were career politicians, or had tried and failed to be successful in the private sector.”

He reports that there are approximately 2.3 million leaders in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Department of Defense. About 13 percent are in the military, with 8 percent in the public sector – federal, state, and local government, including government-run schools and hospitals. That leaves 79 percent, the largest pool, in the private sector, by the figures he gives. “I’m interested in hiring more great leaders into government. I don’t care where they come from. But if you take a ‘segmented approach’ to identifying the biggest source of leaders, you would focus on the private sector, since this is the largest pool,” he writes.

Of course, segmentation these days also includes psychographics. And if government service requires people who are drawn to serve others, then it might be that you are more likely to find that in leaders in the military and in the public sector (which is not to say private sector people don’t have the impulse to serve others; many do, happily within the private sector, providing their product or service, and might also be interested in fulfilling that desire in government). But the psychographic that seems to appeal to Smart would be people who are impatient, action-oriented, and driven to cut costs.

Leadership, he says, is not a state of being but a state of doing. And the three criteria we need from leaders, his consultancy has found after 16 years of research, are the 3As of analyzing, allocating, and aligning: figuring out what outcomes are desired and how to achieve them; establishing a plan to concentrate scarce resources, like money, time and people, toward their best uses, and avoid waste; and influencing others to behave in a coordinated way, according to the plan, to achieve those desired outcomes.

“Now, more than ever, we need leaders who are skilled at the 3As in the public sector,” he says. It would be surprising if there aren’t many leaders with those skills already in American government, of course.

Business leaders shun government, he says, because they lack knowledge of government and the bureaucratic system; think the required sacrifices will be too great; and dislike the public scrutiny they will encounter. He therefore urges business leaders to overcome those obstacles by prepping for a government stint, and planning on that time in government to be short-term.

To help them along, he shares stories of people who enjoyed their time in government, feeling they gained new experiences and new accomplishments. And he has developed a leadocracy pledge, reprinted in the book, where he asks readers to join him in declaring they will complete a full-time, two-year leadership role in government by their 70th birthday. His leadership initiative, to promote the concept, will focus on encouraging private sector leaders to aim for appointed roles in state governments, rather than electoral office, which draws more media scrutiny.

The book is written for fellow travellers from the business community. For those who already have committed to government, it may seem insulting or inflammatory. But career growth for individuals is helped by encouraging new challenges and breaking down barriers and silos to allow more job mobility.

In Canada, businesspeople can and do run for political office. The prime minister’s chief of staff was drawn for a short-term stint from Onex Corporation, the model the book touts. But making it easier for leaders outside today’s government offices to be recruited to public service – and government officials to shift to posts in the private sector or NGOs – is an improvement that can be welcomed, without having to view businesspeople as the fount of efficiency, productivity and organizational wisdom.

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