09 Nov. 2012 | Comments (0)

Watching the presidential election unfold these last few months got me thinking about the comparison between politics and business. Usually, I think elected officials could benefit from some hard driving business methods – alignment, fiscal responsibility, good execution, a relentless focus on results, attention to customer needs, etc. Lately, though, I’m thinking that maybe business might be able to learn something from the political process. What if senior business leaders had to campaign for their seat at the top of the organization? What if the traditional succession planning process was turned on its head… and the employees got to pick their leaders?   

As we know, candidates for political office have to craft a strategy, package that into a message for voters, and debate their competitor in a public forum. The followers (citizens) vote on the candidates and those ideologies. When elected, the candidate serves for a specified time, has his or her performance measured on a regular basis (polls), and can even be “fired” (albeit under remarkable circumstances).  If the incumbent wants a longer run, he or she has to repeat the process above. Throughout the entire process, the followers hold most of the power.

In the business world, however, a group of “party leaders” (CEOs and the Board of Directors) hand-pick the next leader. Without a doubt, the successful candidate generally has a great track record, and has demonstrated some level of competence and judgment. Yet, the “followers” (employees) don’t get to weigh the candidates’ ideas, they don’t witness a debate about what’s best for the company, and they certainly don’t play a direct role in the selection of the new leader. When appointed, the new leader serves for an unspecified time, has his or her performance measured on a regular basis, and can most definitely be fired. If the incumbent wants a long run, they need to remain productive and champion the values of the company.  The entire process is in the hands of senior leaders, who have to be really good at judging character and potential. The followers hold almost no power.

In the end, it’s probably wise to keep the process we have in both arenas – letting a group of “senior leaders” choose our next government official doesn’t make much sense, and having employees pick their leaders might not be the best idea, for a lot of reasons. But it does make you think, doesn’t it? Perhaps those of us in talent management should adopt some lessons from the healthy face-off of issues, styles, and ideas that plays out in the political process. Maybe there’s something to this notion of asking senior managers to lay out their plans, share their leadership style, etc.  I can see it now – a series of debates between Bob from accounting and Sue from corporate finance to see who will be the next CFO! 


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  • About the Author: Steve Arneson, Ph.D.

    Steve Arneson, Ph.D.

    Steve Arneson founded Arneson Leadership Consulting in 2007 to provide executive coaching, talent management, and leadership development solutions to corporations and non-profit organizations. Steve …

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