President-elect Donald Trump tells us that he'll bring his vast business leadership experience to the White House. He promises to use the same techniques that make a business great to make America great. As he takes the oath of office, let's look more closely at what great business leaders do, and consider how these same techniques would let the U.S. thrive in global competition.
Attract and retain top talent. Great business leaders know the importance of talent, and they position their companies to attract the most skilled and motivated people. For the U.S. as a nation, that means that we must keep our doors open to immigrants and keep the American culture friendly and inviting. We want people who can contribute to be excited to come here.
Invest in the future. Great business leaders continually invest in research and innovation. They know a company can't be great if it doesn't have the best products and services. They resist the temptation to cut research and development spending and other innovation spending, just to raise dividends and report higher earnings in the near term. At a national level, our university system is our main investment in the future, along with funding research like the National Institutes of Health. To run the U.S. like a business means we must protect this vital investment in our growth and competitiveness.
Operate efficiently. Great companies build a competitive advantage in efficient operations. Companies like Amazon and Walmart triumph because nobody can beat them at moving stuff around quickly, reliably and cheaply. Applying this principle to the nation means building infrastructure to move people, money, goods and services around. It's disgraceful that America has let its infrastructure to fall into disrepair. Amazon would never do that, and its board would never let them.
Invest in people. Great companies spend money to train and develop their people and support them (within reason) through challenging times. They know that people don't do their best without training, coaching and honest and timely feedback. They know that turnover is more expensive than retention. No corporation would charge employees to get the training they need to do their jobs better. If we ran the country as a business, we would ensure that every young person gets the education he needs to obtain a job and perform it well. And we wouldn't ask them to take on a lifetime of debt to pay for it.
Apply smart policies and rules internally. Great businesses don't operate without rules. Employees can't just do whatever they want. For example, great businesses require staff to solve problems quickly, act with integrity and not take company resources for personal gain. Corporations that don't set and enforce rules internally get into big trouble – like Takata (for exploding airbags), Volkswagen (for cheating on emissions tests) and Wells Fargo (for opening up millions of unauthorized accounts). This internally enforcement failure costs their investors billions – to say nothing of the broader damage they inflict on the public. Rules are needed at the national level, just as they are needed within a business: To make a nation great requires smart regulations, sensibly and consistently enforced.
Manage power dynamics to support good decision-making. A great business needs to maintain a culture throughout the organization that allows good, honest, fact-based decision making. The culture must allow people to disagree strenuously, yet respectfully. It must keep tension within limits so that people can work together effectively, even as they disagree.
A business can't be great if there's open warfare between the departments. A business can't be great if performance data is suppressed, or if everyone is allowed to make up their own "facts" in a business discussion. Sadly, the decision-making culture in the U.S. today couldn't be more different with what it takes to build a great business. As Donald Trump becomes America's CEO, he has an opportunity to fix that.
Of course in many ways the nation isn't a business, and a president has many things to worry about that most CEOs can safely ignore. But if we did nothing but apply these business best-practices to America's governance, it would be a big step forward.