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Friday, February 18, 2011

When is a CEO not a good Governor?

Turbulent times here in Madison, Wisconsin, have gotten me to thinking about CEOs and governors.

In his State of the State address on Feb. 1, Scott Walker, Wisconsin's new governor (in case anyone doesn't know that by now), portrayed himself as a "CEO" "hired" by the citizens of Wisconsin. This was by way of justifying his take-charge approach to his new duties, the consequences of which are on full display up on Capitol Square this week.

It is worth noting, first of all, that if Wisconsites did indeed hire a CEO, the man they recruited for the job has no CEO experience in the private sector. By his own account, he worked for IBM while he was a student at Marquette University and then was employed full-time "in financial development" by a non-profit organization. Since 1993 he has been a politician.

And it is precisely because he lacks hands-on experience as a CEO in the real world, I suspect, that he evidently equates being a CEO with being an autocrat. Vision, yes; leadership, yes; decisive action, yes - those qualities are essential in CEOs and governors alike. But what about the process by which one arrives at the point of action? Walker seems to be unfamiliar with contemporary management thinking about the values of collaboration and negotiation in increasing productivity and efficiency. Indeed, Walker's behavior since taking office makes me think of Richard T. Ely's 1887 description of the despotic enterprise, marked by "the unconstrained control of a single man."

Can a CEO be a good Governor? It seems entirely possible, but only if he or she is a modern-day CEO, not a nineteenth-century throw-back like Walker.