Memos To Josh Bolten

What management gurus would do to get the Bush White House back on track

Josh Bolten may have managed the nation's budget amid record deficits, but that could start to look like a holiday after a few weeks as George W. Bush's new Chief of Staff. Even many who love Bush's vision concede that the nation's first MBA President has fallen short on execution.

As new product launches go, the President's Social Security plan was a flop. The failed Supreme Court nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers provoked protests from the right and bipartisan dismay. Republicans joined Democrats in condemning the attempted sale of key seaports to a Dubai company, a deal that the President apparently didn't know about until it hit the press. Add to that the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and disarray in Iraq. Bolten, a Beltway-born bachelor workaholic known for his smarts, bowling score, and loyalty, has plenty to keep him busy.

BusinessWeek asked some of the country's leading management thinkers to offer tips that might help Bolten, 51, when he steps into the new job on Apr. 15. They cast aside their political leanings to assess how best to tackle what Justin Menkes, author of the best-selling Executive Intelligence, calls "one of the most difficult jobs on the planet." Menkes believes that Bolten can help his beleaguered boss boost his performance by bringing in more outside voices and pushing Bush to pause more before making decisions. "The best leaders ask questions," says Menkes.

So where to start? Leadership guru Noel M. Tichy says Bolten's first step is to frame his job clearly. Some White House Chiefs of Staff act as little more than gatekeepers or special assistants, while others morph into chief operating officers. Tichy sees Bolten's role as "proactively contributing to this leader making the best judgment calls possible for the good of the country." Some key areas: helping decide which staff members are in or out and how to handle the inevitable next crisis.

One challenge for Bush is that his inner circle not only admires him but also seems to think like him, says Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management. "There's too much agreement; they can't imagine failure." Time to bring in thoughtful critics.

Anne M. Mulcahy considers that one of the best moves she made after becoming CEO of Xerox Corp. (XRX ). "The reality is that once you step across the threshold to the corner office, things change," she notes, adding that it's not enough to tap people who will tell it like it is. Leaders have to "schedule time for this express purpose. Don't leave it to chance."


If the inner circle isn't up to the task, Bolten has to focus on building up a terrific outer circle, says Wharton professor Michael Useem. He argues that the goal is to recruit a broad array of sympathetic authorities who are truly diverse in philosophy and life experience. "Then get a sample of those people before the President as often as possible," says Useem. The goal: to encourage Bush to consider new means of accomplishing his agenda.

Sure, it's the guy's last term, but "there's still plenty of time to have a real impact," says Sydney Finkelstein of Dartmouth's Tuck School. For examples of how a President can shift gears, he points to the scandal-plagued second term of Ronald Reagan, when the White House brought in respected former Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. as Chief of Staff, and to the Kennedy Administration. The 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion was an unmitigated disaster that many blame on groupthink. But Kennedy learned a lesson, brought in critics, and was better prepared for the Cuban Missile Crisis in '62. "When things are challenging, there's a natural tendency to circle the wagons," says Finkelstein. A good Chief of Staff will welcome outsiders around the campfire.

By Diane Brady

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