Too Many Advisers Could Spoil The Broth

Throw out the pyramid chart. Purge the word "hierarchy" from government manuals. Bill Clinton is moving into the White House and bringing with him a management system that could turn the place into a New Age vortex of collaboration, creative tension--and, maybe, chaos.

It's no surprise that the first baby-boomer President rejects the Organization Man-style that dominated business and government for decades. Modern Presidents have drawn their inspiration from corporate chief executives, who often surround themselves with sycophants. Such leaders "atrophy in high office because they are insulated," says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, an Emory University management expert.

Most post-World War II Presidents also have been admirers of the quasi-military management pattern of Dwight D. Eisenhower. That, says historian Michael R. Beschloss, meant "strict staff systems with clear lines of authority." With his penchant for free-form policy debates, Clinton's approach reminds Beschloss of Franklin D. Roosevelt, "a master broker drawing all into a symphony of frenzied competition."

Indeed, Wonk-in-Chief Clinton is busily setting up his White House like a think tank. Development of economic policy will be split--somehow--by Clinton's Treasury Dept., the Office of Management & Budget, the Council of Economic Advisers, and by a new National Economic Council. Oops, don't forget Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich. A policy heavyweight, Reich may turn his department from a backwater into a powerhouse. Elsewhere in the White House, there are communications kingpins, domestic-policy heavies, and an organization chart like a spaghetti dinner.

WANDERER. None of this fazes Clinton, who practices what's known in the consulting biz as "management by wandering around." Some successful executives, notably John Sculley of Apple Computer Inc. and John F. Welch Jr. of General Electric Co., run their businesses by maximizing contact with managers. James O'Toole of the University of Southern California Leadership Institute warns that CEOs isolate themselves at their peril: "All you have to do is look at the 14th floor of the General Motors Building, behind the bulletproof glass wall, where top managers were hermetically sealed from the world." Listening, O'Toole says, is an essential management skill, and Clinton "may be one of the best."

But a President has only so much time to schmooze. And Clinton's White House gives no one control of access to the boss. Chief of Staff Thomas F. McLarty III, to whom the job normally would fall, describes himself as "an organizer rather than the proverbial gatekeeper." The danger is that Clinton will try to do too much himself. Clinton "is a man of incredible energy and intellectual curiosity, but he can't do that job 18 hours a day, 7 days a week," frets Jack Watson, Jimmy Carter's Cabinet Secretary.

The peril of Clinton plunging into too many issues is especially high because he's surrounding himself with a lot of bright, opinionated people. Faced with a choice of two strong contenders for a single job, Clinton often has found a way to hire both, creating a team with great depth--and high potential for conflict. Lloyd M. Bentsen and Robert E. Rubin both wanted to be Treasury Secretary. Bentsen got the nod, and Rubin got the economic council as a consolation prize. Clinton's desire to hire as many advisers as possible is one reason he now seems to be backing off his pledge to cut the White House staff by 25%.

'IT WORKED.' Clinton is sticking with the style that got him where he is. In Arkansas, he prowled the Capitol at night, buttonholing lawmakers. He ran his campaign in the same unstructured way, adding top aides as the situation demanded. "The system was so messy, it took a while to figure it out," says campaign adviser Michael S. Berman. "But on reflection, I have to say it worked."

Washington, however, is a long way from Little Rock. "How does he get everyone in the act and still get action?" wonders USC professor Warren Bennis. Even under the best of circumstances, the White House suffers from internecine warfare. Clinton's proliferation of offices and titles just heightens the risk. "Clinton's White House has lots of overlapping units, and a lot of them have staffs--and that means the staffs will be clashing," says a senior Bush Administration official. "It won't work."

The trick for Clinton will be to remain focused and to stay above the petty battles. Unlike Jimmy Carter, he won't try to control the White House tennis court. But Bill Clinton, inveterate talker and tinkerer, could end up wasting time on matters almost as unproductive. And it won't help much if all of the spokes in Clinton's White House point toward the big wheel in the Oval Office.

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