I do a lot of CEO assessments. However, when it comes doing a CEO turnaround there is a prescribed process that typically leads to success that might actually apply to the U.S. presidency. While it is far too early to assess Trump’s performance, because he doesn’t have the job yet, I can provide milestones that could be used to measure whether he is likely to eventually be a success or failure. Let’s talk about that this week.
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Success or failure
First, we’d have to agree on what constituted a success or failure. Typically, the party that the president is from will praise their success and the other party will paint the result as a failure. I think the only true measure of success or failure is whether they selected their successor or whether the successor was selected by their rival party. The reason I think this is the best measure is because much of the accomplishments of a president mature after they leave office, but if a rival comes in the first thing they typically do is remove much of the related initiatives. By this measure the only recent president that was a success was Ronald Reagan. Obama reversed much of what George Bush Jr. accomplished and Trump will likely reverse much of Obama’s progress.
So with that measure here are some critical milestones.
Building a loyal team
This is the step that many new CEOs and presidents seem to miss. If you don’t have loyal lieutenants your administration will likely be defined by infighting and secret rebellions. As a leader you need to know that your direction will be followed and that your executive staff can be trusted and won’t subvert your agenda with their own. This is one of the key foundational elements, this is something, for instance, that Carly Fiorina never did at HP and thus her failure could be forecast early on.
There are always some critical people that simply aren’t up to the jobs they are given. This is most obvious and common in political organizations where jobs are often given as gifts and media is ever present, but it is a common occurrence in companies as well often with existing executives whose capabilities are assumed but later found to be lacking. Meg Whitman’s tenure was defined largely by a revolving door of executives who reported to her, signifying she was largely unsuccessful at assuring competence.
Assuring accurate intelligence
This is where George W. Bush largely failed as did John Akers at IBM, the first IBM CEO ever fired. Without accurate intelligence you can’t see and respond to problems in a timely manner, are more easily manipulated by false information, and decision-makers can’t make good decisions from bad data. Given Donald Trump’s performance so far I expect this will be his biggest problem. If he can’t assure that the information he makes decisions from is accurate he will be unable to assure his decisions are the right ones.
As a CEO or the president it isn’t just doing a good job that is important, it is being perceived as doing a good job. Both unsuccessful CEOs and presidents seem to think that their image after they get the job or get elected isn’t important.
There needs to be a consistent high-level effort to assure that your successes are recognized and your failures are downplayed. If this does not happen what pulls more interest will get the most attention, and negative information always pulls more interest naturally than positive information does. This is where I think Obama failed the most, and what badly damaged Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, their mistakes overshadowed their successes in the minds of stakeholders leading to the perception of failure.
As a CEO or a president there are lots of distractions not the least of which are the power, perks and sense of omnipotence. Staying focused on the job and not misusing power, getting distracted by the perks and losing track of the people who depend on you is incredibly hard, and we’ve seen a number of top executives and politicians fail because of excesses that they should have known to avoid.
It amazes me how many leaders think that leading comes with the title and that loyalty can be taken for granted. If folks don’t follow you then you aren’t leading, and no CEO or president will get anything they want done if their people don’t follow their direction. Loyalty is key to this and it isn’t just, as I initially wrote, assuring the team is initially loyal, but being loyal to your team so they remain loyal to you.
One of my early indicators of a CEO problem is if they don’t have a single person who followed them from their last job. This implies they are likely both a weak leader and disloyal to their people suggesting they will eventually, or even initially, be disloyal to them.
Will Trump’s inexperience help him succeed or fail?
I don’t think newly hired CEOs actually think through all of the ways they will be measured, largely because jobs under CEO have much more tightly defined metrics. Presidents are even worse because that job is unique in what is a massive mismatch of responsibility and authority, which is why so few have truly been successful.
The shear odds and inexperience would seem to work against Trump but, unlike a politician, he is less likely to assume similarities to other political jobs and thus might better see the pitfalls than a career politician. However, because the job sounds like a CEO job his mistakes may be more uniquely painful and embarrassing.
In the end, it all will likely depend on how focused, informed and surrounded by loyal, capable people he is, and how much he realizes that his lasting impact will result largely from those who follow him both into the White House and after he leaves it. This last point, for a president or a CEO, is very often forgotten and that is why most top leaders have only transitory impact.