Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Memo to Obama: Beware of Technical Expertise

This is a critical time for Barak Obama. He has no more important task than picking personnel. Leslie Wexner, who founded The Limited, says that one of the hardest lessons he learned was that the central job of a CEO is being the CPO, the Chief Personnel Officer. Obasma will be tempted to choose people who know too much, technical experts who have distinguished themselves with their deep knowledge in, say, economics or foreign affairs. But what the world, and Obama, needs in these unusual times, is not technical expertise, which can be rented or purchased or borrowed anytime in the marketplace, but people of judgment and character who have the capacity to adapt to new, unforeseen circumstances.

Take the Treasury Department, for example. As I looked at the photo in the New York Times of that cast of characters Obama had assembled to discuss the economy, most of whom were pretty clearly Treasury Secretary wannabes, I was struck by how narrow a slice of the world they represented and how narrow a slice of the world's knowledge base or experience as well. "Experts" tend to have a point of view, and if they have a point of view they are invested in that point of view, leading them to misread the situation, ignore counter-data, and stick with their game plan long after it is clear it is not working. What should be most important to Obama about Larry Summers, for example, is not his unquestioned brilliance, but his failed Harvard presidency, when he was unable to stop putting his foot in his mouth and unable to rally the community to his vision for the University. The difference between government and academia, is that in government if the relevant community will not go accept the idea then the idea it is useless, but in academia the idea is always useful fodder for another journal article that few people will ever read.

What Obama needs at Treasury and State is someone with Summers' quality of mind, but with a willingness to experiment and an openness to change, Obama's mantra, that has been demonstrated under challenging and changing circumstances, like Google's Eric Schmidt or US Senator Chuck Hagel.

Oh, and one other quality that is important. Obama needs people who believe in politics, not who disdain it. When I was doing personnel for the Governor of Massachusetts, we recruited and hired a lot of people from the business world. The ones who were obsessed with taking the politics out of government and substituting "good business practices" often blew themselves up with in a year. The ones who were excited by the challenge of mastering politics so that they could have an impact were often significant contributors for a long, long time.


Teleos1 said...

Marty, your point is right on. I believe Larry Summers will not be selected because he also lacks something very critical during these economically challenging times - interpersonal communication skills. He just does not get along with people to well. His comments about women were quite stupid, and he was even dumber to make his remarks public. I am hopeful President Elect Obama will look at his own leadership and fuse his new administration with both experience and great potential (of which is a part of and our nation supported).

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