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Les McKeown

Les McKeown

Posted: October 21, 2010 04:04 PM

It's clear that we're going to see a shakeup in the administration's economic policy team before the end of the year, and there's been much talk of bringing in a successful business leader (such as Anne Mulcahy, ex-Xerox CEO) in an attempt to counter criticism that the Obama White House appears out of touch with -- and unsympathetic to -- corporate America.

While I admire many successful leaders of large corporations -- it's a hard and complex job and requires a wide range of skills -- with the greatest respect to those same people, theirs is not the voice that we most need to hear from at this time.

To stabilize, strengthen and accelerate our barely-breathing economic recovery, a truly brave move on the part of the president and his team would be to appoint not a marquee "brand name" business leader like Mulcahy, but instead, to turn to one or more successful founder-owners from the SME (small- and medium-sized enterprise) community.

Why? There are five main reasons we need to hear from this group, rather than from their more well-known celebrity big-business colleagues:

1. They think, talk and act with skin in the game.

Founder-owners are distinguished from just about every other business group as being people who live or die by the decisions they make. There are fewer Mark Hurd-like second acts in the world of SME business owners, and as a result, they ruthlessly stress-test the likely results of their decisions.

With all the best will in the world, when you're "merely" salaried (no matter how high or performance-oriented that salary is), you think in a completely different way from people who are literally "all in." It's like the old adage of the chicken and the pig. When it comes to breakfast, the chicken may be involved in delivering the egg, but the pig is committed.

Founder-owners are committed. Celebrity CEOs are merely involved. We'll get very much less of the "let's throw it against the wall and see if it sticks" policy approach if founder-owners are part of the process.

2. They do results, not optics.

Let's face it, running a public company these days is as much about the optics -- how things look -- as it is about the underlying fundamental realities. In this regard, most celebrity CEOs are far too like their political brethren in being easily swayed to agree to a path of action because it looks good, rather than because it will actually make a real positive difference to the people impacted.

Running a privately-held organization is a different game altogether. Managing by "what makes me look good" has a short shelf life, and those that rise to the top in the SME world -- and stay there -- tend to be people who trade in bloody, inconvenient reality.

3. They're less likely to be building a future platform.

We've all seen the celebrity CEO that has used their business fame as a stepping stone to political power -- see the current races in California as an example. That's their right, of course, and more power to them -- but it's not the type of person we need to hear from while trying to stabilize and accelerate our faltering economic recovery.

The people we need to hear from -- urgently -- are those who will only under the utmost reluctance engage in public service; give it their all while they can make a difference, then get the heck out of there and back to where their true passion is -- running their business.

Would one or more SME founder-owners become enamored of the political life and decide to hang around? Sure. But I'd rather start with the reluctant many than depend on the clamoring few.

4. They know how to (and will) speak truth to power.

If, as I have, you've worked in a wide range of both privately-held and publicly-traded companies, you'll have noticed that one of the biggest differences between them is the degree of honest interaction at the very top. There's simply less... well, politics.

That's not to say that there aren't privately-held companies where senior execs play politics, or publicly-traded organizations with a mature, no-nonsense top team, but the general tendency is that founder-owners put up with (and generate) a lot less bull-hockey, and tend much more toward straight talk.

You think we could do with some straight talk right now?

5. They're closer to the real world.

If there's one thing that marks the era of modern-day economic policy making, it's that the policymakers are increasingly cocooned from personally living with -- and suffering from -- the impact of their decisions (I'd love to watch a few senators travel coach for a month before approving yet another dignity-abasing piece of security theater at the airport).

Especially in the area of economic recovery, we need the policy debate to be from people who live, eat and sleep in the real world just like the rest of us -- not for reasons of schadenfreude (I have no problem with celebrity CEO's traveling by company jet everywhere, heck, if I could get that gig I might take it too), but because we need real, working answers in the next 18 months -- and those are much more likely to come from people who are living it in the trenches every day.

There's no glamor or media brownie points in eschewing the celebrity CEO and appointing a relative unknown founder-owner from the SME community to advise on real-world economic reform -- but there just might be a massive payoff.

 
 
 

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