Hey Business Leader, Why Not Give Government a Try?

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Could the two-week government shutdown rev up Geoff Smart’s three-year crusade to get more business leaders into government? Consider the reaction to the leadership guru’s pitch at last week’s Bloomberg Longevity Summit, when he peered into the audience and asked: “Who here is planning to work in the government?” Not a single hand went up.

“I’d rather have my teeth drilled than go through the process,” said one attendee. “There’s too much red tape … it’s hard to be innovative.”

Added another: “My experience with people in government is they’re not very happy, so why would I want to be there?”

And: “I would be afraid of excessive scrutiny from superiors who weren’t as good as I was.”

A former central bank economist piped up. “Ultimately, for me, the problem is politics,” he said. “Decisions are ultimately made from a political perspective and not an economic perspective.” The result, he noted dryly, was “rather frustrating.”

Finally, someone spoke up to say he’d done a stint in government and it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was quite satisfying and rather fun. Aha! That’s exactly what Smart found when he interviewed people for his 2012 book Leadocracy, which he defines as a “democracy of society’s greatest leaders.” In fact, several of the private-sector leaders who did stints in government told the CEO of ghSMART that it was “the best leadership adventure of their career.”

The key is how they get there. Unlike those who give up corporate office to run for political office, a group that Bloomberg Businessweek’s Josh Green chronicled recently, Smart suggests seeking a two-year appointment in the executive branch. No door-knocking. No fund-raising. No media camped on the front lawn. Just a chance to offer your talents to an enlightened mayor, governor, or president who wants more business expertise. Think of it as a Peace Corps-style opportunity for the C-suite set.

As an example, Smart cites Kristin Russell, who went from working with Larry Ellison at Oracle to serving as Colorado’s secretary of technology and chief information officer. Despite the step down in salary and resources—Russell once shared with me the initial shock of moving from Oracle’s gleaming headquarters to an old building where the children’s toilets had been rigged to fit adults—she now loves it. Since accepting Governor John Hickenlooper’s appointment in February 2011, she has reduced more than a dozen e-mail systems to one and put it in the cloud. When Smart told her it took him about a minute to renew his driver’s license since she moved the process online, she replied, “That’s what I’m talking about!”

With such fleet-footed action in short supply inside the Beltway, though, it’s no surprise that only 2 percent of CEOs polled by Smart’s firm said they want to do a government stint. Under the current shutdown, they might not even be allowed to show up for work.

Such a massive display of dysfunction doesn’t dissuade Smart, who’s eyeing opportunities at the state level. His vision of what can be also generated some ripples in the crowd. When he took a show of hands after 15 minutes, at least eight people said they’d now like to do a stint in government. Just maybe not that government in Washington.

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