Ceos-in-chief

Howard Schultz, Bob Iger, and other biz lead­ers may be mulling runs. Here’s why that mat­ters.

Fast Company - - Contents - By Austin Carr

Why ex­ec­u­tives like Oprah Win­frey and Howard Schultz are flirt­ing with pres­i­den­tial runs—and what that means for our coun­try.

On a re­cent af­ter­noon in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., at a Star­bucks just a few blocks from the White House, a pair of baris­tas are ex­plain­ing why their boss Howard Schultz should run for pres­i­dent. Schultz, the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of the world’s largest cof­fee-shop chain, had re­port­edly con­sid­ered bids for the Oval Of­fice in pre­vi­ous elec­tions, but since he an­nounced in De­cem­ber that he would be step­ping down as CEO, spec­u­la­tion has built about his plans for 2020.

Em­ploy­ees at this par­tic­u­lar store seem ea­ger for “Howard,” as they call him, to get in the race. “He’s a great guy and a great CEO,” says one of the work­ers, point­ing to Star­bucks’s un­usu­ally gen­er­ous ben­e­fits and Schultz’s pro­gres­sive ac­tivism on a range of cur­rent is­sues, which in­clude ad­vo­cat­ing for LGBTQ rights and pro­vid­ing job op­por­tu­ni­ties to both mil­i­tary vet­er­ans and refugees. “I would con­sider vot­ing for him.”

For many Wash­ing­ton pun­dits and in­sid­ers, the idea of a Schultz can­di­dacy is hard to re­sist. The bil­lion­aire Brook­lyn na­tive seems to have the means, the pri­vate-sec­tor bona fides, the plat­form and reach, and the strong per­sonal brand to po­ten­tially mount a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to Pres­i­dent Trump.

But Schultz is hardly the only ex­ec­u­tive who is gen­er­at­ing ex­cite­ment in the po­lit­i­cal world. Ever since Trump’s Novem­ber vic­tory— which was sig­nif­i­cantly aided by his im­age as a busi­ness­man—elec­tion watch­ers are look­ing to­ward a range of cor­po­rate lu­mi­nar­ies as po­ten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates. Dis­ney CEO Bob Iger is re­port­edly think­ing about a run, as is Dal­las Mav­er­icks owner (and Shark Tank re­al­ity-tv star) Mark Cuban. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a ru­mored po­ten­tial con­tender (al­though he has de­nied it, as has COO Sh­eryl Sand­berg). Even Oprah Win­frey hinted that she might be in­ter­ested.

“After Trump’s suc­cess, it’s no sur­prise that non­politi­cians from the worlds of busi­ness and en­ter­tain­ment are ask­ing them­selves, Why not me?” says Brian Fal­lon, who served as the press sec­re­tary for Hil­lary Clin­ton’s most re­cent pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “To­day, busi­ness­peo­ple are seen al­most au­to­mat­i­cally as ef­fec­tive mes­sen­gers on the econ­omy, as job cre­ators. That gives them an in­her­ent ad­van­tage.”

Things were very dif­fer­ent when Henry Ford ran for a Se­nate seat in Michi­gan a cen­tury ago. With his in­dus­try-build­ing ex­pe­ri­ence and vir­tu­ally un­lim­ited fi­nances, the

au­to­mo­bile mag­nate was ini­tially thought to be a shoo-in for the seat. He ended up los­ing, how­ever, in “a de­feat that sent shiv­ers through other busi­ness­peo­ple think­ing of run­ning for of­fice them­selves,” ac­cord­ing to pres­i­den­tial his­to­rian Dou­glas Brink­ley. “Gen­er­a­tions of the rich­est peo­ple learned there’s a pop­ulist re­bel­lion that oc­curs when vot­ers feel there’s some­one rich buy­ing [an elec­tion].”

Since then, Amer­ica’s per­cep­tion of wealth, and of CEOS, has changed sig­nif­i­cantly, eas­ing the way for busi­ness-world as­pi­rants such as EDS founder Ross Perot, one­time God­fa­ther’s Pizza leader Her­man Cain, and for­mer HP CEO Carly Fio­r­ina, most of whom never got much trac­tion with their pres­i­den­tial ef­forts. (Mitt Rom­ney, who won the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion in 2012, em­pha­sized his tenure as gov­er­nor of Mas­sachusetts more than his ex­pe­ri­ence as co­founder of Bain Cap­i­tal.) While ca­reer politi­cians— with their eas­ily crit­i­cized vot­ing records—are as­so­ci­ated with Wash­ing­ton grid­lock and en­trenched bu­reau­cracy, busi­ness suc­cess is syn­ony­mous with a cer­tain kind of savvy and smarts. “We’re in an era when CEOS are the lead­ers of Amer­ica,” Brink­ley says. “More peo­ple are go­ing to be in­ter­ested in the story of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs than some se­na­tor.”

Trump con­vinced vot­ers that an out­sider from the cor­po­rate world would be well-suited to take on big gov­ern­ment, but cer­tainly his enor­mous brand recog­ni­tion and tele­vi­sion celebrity also con­trib­uted greatly to his ap­peal as a can­di­date. Did peo­ple vote for him be­cause he was ac­tu­ally a suc­cess­ful CEO, or be­cause he played one on TV? “There’s no ques­tion that Trump en­tered this race with a great ad­van­tage for hav­ing done The Ap­pren­tice,” says Stu­art Stevens, who ran Rom­ney’s 2012 cam­paign. “The idea that you have to have held elected of­fice be­fore to run for pres­i­dent is now clearly false.”

If Trump ben­e­fited so greatly from his hit re­al­ity-tv show, just think about the boost Oprah would likely get given her decades of rat­ings suc­cess with The Oprah Win­frey Show and her ex­traor­di­nar­ily pas­sion­ate fan base. Or imag­ine the halo ef­fect Schultz and Iger might en­joy with their lead­er­ship be­ing so closely tied to such beloved brands as Star­bucks and Dis­ney. “Most peo­ple don’t ex­pe­ri­ence a Trump ho­tel, while peo­ple all over the coun­try ex­pe­ri­ence Star­bucks ev­ery day,” says Demo­cratic strate­gist Joe Trippi, who over­saw Howard Dean’s un­suc­cess­ful pres­i­den­tial cam­paign back in 2004.

Busi­ness lead­ers can also tap into cer­tain ad­van­tages that just aren’t avail­able to most tra­di­tional politi­cians. “They have the re­sources to run,” says Trippi, “un­like the Bernie San­der­ses of the world, who can only get the re­sources by at­tract­ing a big fol­low­ing.” Mark Cuban is a highly en­gaged so­cial me­dia star with more than 6.5 mil­lion Twitter fol­low­ers. Oprah pub­lishes her own mag­a­zine and has count­less fa­mous (and wealthy) friends and ad­mir­ers. And if even a frac­tion of Star­bucks’s 170,000 U.S. em­ploy­ees get ex­cited about the idea of a Schultz cam­paign, that would start him off with a groundswell of cam­paign vol­un­teers.

But sim­ply hav­ing a mega­phone isn’t go­ing to be enough. “Re­gard­less of whether you own a plat­form like, say, a chain of re­tail lo­ca­tions or a so­cial me­dia net­work, you need that flu­ency in iden­ti­fy­ing and reach­ing the au­di­ence you’re seek­ing,” says Fal­lon. “The type of in­no­va­tion hap­pen­ing in mar­ket­ing in C-suites is prob­a­bly what needs to be im­ported to po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.”

With no ob­vi­ous front-run­ner for the 2020 Demo­cratic ticket, it seems quite likely that other un­ex­pected can­di­dates, each with their own unique brand and plat­form, will be floated for of­fice in the years

“Democrats are look­ing at their se­na­tors and gov­er­nors and say­ing, ‘Yikes, they don’t have the right stuff. But what about these CEOS?’ ”

ahead. While re­port­ing this story, I heard var­i­ous politi­cos sug­gest pos­si­bil­i­ties rang­ing from bil­lion­aire hedge-fund man­ager turned en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivist Tom Steyer to the ac­tor Ge­orge Clooney. “There’s a ta­lent hunt on right now to fill the void,” says Brink­ley. “Democrats are look­ing at their se­na­tors and gov­er­nors and say­ing, ‘Yikes, they don’t have the right stuff. But what about one of these CEOS or celebri­ties?’ ”

But is any of this re­ally a good idea? Do the skills re­quired to run large com­pa­nies ac­tu­ally trans­late to gov­ern­ment? For­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has said that he thinks busi­ness acu­men is more help­ful for build­ing cam­paigns than for oc­cu­py­ing the White House. And there’s no rea­son to think that tra­di­tional top-down, cor­po­rate-hi­er­ar­chy think­ing is par­tic­u­larly use­ful in an en­vi­ron­ment where large-scale change re­quires con­sen- sus-build­ing and leg­isla­tive knowhow (just look at Trump’s early stum­bles). When I ask Mark Cuban about this is­sue, he re­sponds that ex­cep­tional busi­ness lead­ers know how to learn quickly and can ad­just to what­ever chal­lenges are in front of them, whether in a pub­lic or pri­vate ca­pac­ity. “Rom­ney had no prob­lem adapt­ing to be­ing gov­er­nor,” he says. “Nor should any strong can­di­date have a prob­lem adapt­ing to the job of POTUS. His­tor­i­cally, a pre­pon­der­ance of can­di­dates have been at­tor­neys. I’ll take busi­ness­peo­ple any day.”

Vot­ers are cur­rently wit­ness­ing the dis­rup­tive im­pact of hav­ing an out­sider CEO in the Oval Of­fice, and it’s pos­si­ble that their ap­petite for fu­ture cor­po­rate politi­cians will de­pend on what hap­pens over the next few years. “For 2020, busi­ness lead­ers have to start think­ing about how they’d run if Trump has so pol­luted the wa­ter for a no-gov­ern­ment­ex­pe­ri­ence can­di­date,” says Trippi. “If that’s no longer in vogue, how are you go­ing to deal with that? Be­cause you can’t just say, ‘He was a busi­ness­man who screwed up gov­ern­ing, but I won’t.’ ”

It’s also worth not­ing that these ti­tans of in­dus­try wouldn’t ini­tially be run­ning against Pres­i­dent Trump, but rather against one an­other. It’s hard to pic­ture pol­ished cor­po­rate pros like Schultz and Iger on­stage at a series of tele­vised pri­mary-sea­son de­bates trad­ing ver­bal punches. Plus, in or­der to mount se­ri­ous pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns, they would have to be will­ing to en­dure some enor­mous down­sides, such as the vi­cious­ness of to­day’s po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment and the of­ten-bru­tal me­dia cov­er­age. “There’s one amount of scru­tiny you’re sub­jected to when you’re ac­count­able to a board, share­hold­ers, and the busi­ness press,” says Fal­lon. “It’s a whole other thing to sub­ject your­self to the po­lit­i­cal press corps day in and day out—to have what you’re wear­ing [be judged], have to be ‘on’ ev­ery day, strik­ing the ex­act right tone and ap­pear­ance. It’s a dif­fer­ent set of de­mands, and it takes a toll.”

There is also the real risk of do­ing dam­age to their rep­u­ta­tions should they suf­fer an em­bar­rass­ing pub­lic de­feat, like Henry Ford once did. “If you’re go­ing to run for pres­i­dent, you have to have such an un­be­liev­able hunger for the job,” Brink­ley says. “If you’re the head of Star­bucks now, do you want to be­come this beat-up, bat­tered po­lit­i­cal fig­ure?”

That’s why it’s quite pos­si­ble that none of these ru­mored can­di­dates will ac­tu­ally de­cide to run when the time comes. If any of them are se­ri­ously think­ing about it, they al­most cer­tainly wouldn’t say so this early in the process, but so far, they’ve gen­er­ally been eva­sive—as have most tra­di­tional politi­cians whose names are in the mix for 2020.

Iger re­cently said that Dis­ney is his full-time job, and that “I don’t think the no­tion of run­ning for pres­i­dent is some­thing any­one con­sid­ers ei­ther on a part-time ba­sis or in a frivolous way.” (He has re­port­edly in­formed friends that he’s toy­ing with the idea.) Cuban tells me that he is not plan­ning to get into the race “as of now.” And when I asked Schultz about his pres­i­den­tial as­pi­ra­tions back in 2015, he re­sponded pretty de­ci­sively: “I have no de­sire to be in an elected po­si­tion in gov­ern­ment. I re­ally do be­lieve that I can do much more as a pri­vate cit­i­zen to ef­fect change than if I was in Wash­ing­ton.”

Of course, that was be­fore the ex­tremely un­likely rise of a celebrity real es­tate per­son­al­ity, be­fore Hil­lary Clin­ton’s stun­ning elec­toral loss, and be­fore vot­ers made clear just how hun­gry they are for gen­uine, se­ri­ous change. “If more peo­ple re­al­ize the stakes, and that causes peo­ple [like Schultz] to re­think the idea that they can make more of a dif­fer­ence out­side Wash­ing­ton, then that’s a good thing,” says Fal­lon. “If Trump’s pres­i­dency might have one sil­ver lin­ing, it’s that, yes, pol­i­tics mat­ters. Pub­lic ser­vice is ex­tremely rel­e­vant, and you don’t need to be a ca­reer politi­cian to suc­ceed at it.”

It’s hard to pic­ture pol­ished cor­po­rate pros like Schultz and Iger at tele­vised de­bates trad­ing ver­bal punches.

Il­lus­tra­tions by Ery Burns

Grande as­pi­ra­tions Star­bucks ex­ec­u­tive chair­man Howard Schultz would be a dif­fer­ent kind of out­sider can­di­date.

Mark of in­ter­est? If he runs, Cuban will have re­al­ity-tv renown and a strong voice on Twitter.

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