What CEO Recruiters Would Ask Presidential Candidates

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Politicians are frequently tell us what they would do if elected. We'd do well to press them on how they'd do it.

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Shortly before the campaign for the GOP nomination began, I chatted with Nels Olson, a vice chairman at the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, about how Americans pick their presidents. "Mr. Olson has advised many clients through challenging management transitions," his bio states. "Over the past 17 years, he has completed in excess of 500 successful searches for a wide range of Fortune 500 companies, associations and non-profit organizations." A president and a CEO are different, of course, but I figured that successfully choosing leaders in private enterprise might have something to teach us about picking presidents.

What I remember most vividly from our conversation is Olson's insight that the focus among political candidates is often on what they'll endeavor to do if elected, whereas a CEO candidate, brought in for an interview, is inevitably pressed not just on what he or she would accomplish, but how it would be accomplished. Recruiters and boards of directors aren't looking for the best assertion of strategy so much as the candidate most likely to successfully lead the organization. Would she be able to implement her vision? How would he win over stakeholders? Would her leadership style prove polarizing? What was his backup plan?

In campaigns, the press focuses on the horse race and questions about the campaign. "How do you think your plan to reform Social Security will fly with elderly voters?" the political writer wonders. Voters tend to ask candidates about their beliefs and what policies they favor to solve a certain problem. "Will you raise the retirement age, and how will it affect my mother?" the voter inquires. Far less often is the politician asked, "What's your plan for taking this from platform plank to signed legislation resembling your proposal?" Or, "The viability of this reform depends on the cooperation of the bureaucracy. How will you get it?"

The point isn't to elicit detailed plans on legislative strategy to see whose is the most sophisticated, so much as to ground campaigns in the reality of the job candidates are actually seeking. In the "how" rather than "what" mindset, certain qualifications become more important: Are you an effective negotiator? Have you shown an ability to change public opinion with your rhetoric? What types of compromises do you prefer? Vital lines of questioning present themselves. So, Michele Bachmann, you insist on radically reducing the size and scope of government. As a Congresswoman, you can just vote no on everything. What if you're elected president? How will you advance your agenda? What if you win the presidency, but serve part of your term with Democrats controlling the House or Senate?

Asking "how" in addition to "what" also affects the sort of background information that we find relevant. We all know that Mitt Romney passed a health care bill with a mandate in Massachusetts -- and that if there's one thing he won't do if elected president, it's champion a health care bill with a federal mandate. But how did Romney pass bills as governor? What does his negotiating style, use of the bully pulpit, relations with the other party, and other issues besides tell us about how he would perform in the White House? What about Rick Perry? We're learning more and more about what he has done in Texas, but how did he do those things?

Thus far in President Obama's tenure, and during the Bush years too, the "how" of politics often turned out to be important, whether the subject was Libya or the health care bill or attempts to privatize Social Security or the War in Iraq or many other issues besides. Focusing more on "how" in campaigns won't reveal the future.

But aren't there useful things it can tell us that we don't now know?

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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