Does Trump know business?
Everyone is asking whether Donald Trump would make a good president. Despite the collective interest in this question, the election has raised another equally critical question — and one that probably matters a great deal more to Mr. Trump himself (what with his illustrious career and oft-noted Wharton credentials): Is Mr. Trump a good businessman?
On the one hand, the answer is obvious. He has made billions and billions of dollars, which is billions and billions more than most other people. So from a financial standpoint, the answer is an obvious and resounding “yes.”
Yet this humble business school professor submits that the events of the current election have made it important to critically examine Mr. Trump’s business skills, if only because presidents have to do a lot more than develop brilliant policies. They also have to run what amounts to one of the biggest and most powerful organizations in the world — a task that good businesspeople could presumably handle better than bad ones.
So let’s ask the question. And let me ask it as even-handedly as I can, by simply listing 10 skills that any business school professor would insist that any effective businessperson has to have. I’ll then list their political equivalents so you can judge for yourself whether Mr. Trump has demonstrated these skills on the campaign trail. Here goes:
1. The best businesspeople find ways to devise creative solutions in addition to making aggressive claims. In an election, this could involve proposing policies that have at least a fighting chance of attracting bipartisan support (e.g., on admitting refugees).
2. The best businesspeople know how to close their mouths and open their ears in the presence of trusted advisers. On the campaign trial, this might involve consistently adopting or at least considering the counsel of experienced political professionals.
The best businesspeople make it crystal-clear what everyone in their organization is supposed to be doing and how everyone’s role differs from everyone else’s. In a campaign, that might involve creating roles with non-overlapping titles (e.g., campaign manager or CEO, but not both), mitigating duplication and turf wars.
4. The best businesspeople appeal to the largest and most diverse group of customers — in this case, the largest and most diverse set of voters.
5. The best businesspeople establish the strongest possible financial foundation for their organization, in this case by fundraising as intensively as possible.
The best businesspeople develop a message and stick to it, whatever direction the wind blows. In politics, this might involve articulating a clear position on, say, immigration, then consistently sticking to it. 7.
The best businesspeople also deploy their excellent communication skills within their organizations (e.g., by making sure their employees know what they’re about to do). In politics, this might involve making sure staff knows exactly what positions the candidate is about to take (e.g., about the Second Amendment and Hillary Clinton).
The best businesspeople partner with others whocould helpfully scratch their back, in this case people like Paul Ryan and John McCain.
9. The best businesspeople promote the best people as their closest advisers. They avoid the lure of nepotism, trusting the people with the best ideas rather than the best names.
10. The best businesspeople make a course correction when the market belies the strategy, in this case when polls suggest a problem. Has Mr. Trump demonstrated these skills? In the shadow of a looming election, it’s important for all of us to answer for ourselves. I list No. 10 last because it’s the one I personally have the hardest time answering; the past few weeks having provided some indication of a course correction (as well as a wobble, literal and figurative, on the part of his opponent).
So how would you answer? Do Mr. Trump’s actions on the campaign trail suggest he can run a big organization, or do they make you wonder how he made the billions and billions of dollars in the first place?