Bill George Go To
discoveryour
truenorth.org

Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Reflections on WSJ CEO Council 2010

Monday’s Wall Street Journal covers the complete highlights of last week WSJ CEO Council in Washington. Here I would like to share some of my own reflections.

I participated as a subject expert on the “Restoring Confidence in Business” task force, one of five CEO task forces to develop the recommendations highlighted in today’s paper. The others included 1) health care, 2) global finance, 3) energy and the environment, and 4) creating sustainable jobs.

Throughout the two-day event we heard from significant members of the Obama administration, including Secretaries Gates (Defense), Geithner (Treasury), and Duncan (Education), White House economists Summers and Goolsbee, and Republican and Democratic House and Senate leaders.

The most impressive speaker and most sensible was New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He has as keen an understanding of what it will take to get the country and New York moving ahead as anyone I’ve heard. Too bad he’s not running for President in 2012!  As he pointed out, a fiscally-conservative, socially-liberal candidate does not have much chance of getting either party’s nomination. Nor could an independent ever hope to garner the majority of electoral votes required to avoid resolution by the House of Representatives.

As for other speakers, Bob Gates and Arne Duncan both made very strong impressions. Gates’ departure as Defense Secretary in 2012 will leave a void that will be hard to fill. He has guided DOD skillfully through two administrations and two wars, and was quite clear that he is planning to reduce unnecessary costs to bring budget levels down.

Sounding more like a free marketer than a typical education leader, Duncan is making significant progress in reforming the nation’s K-12 education systems. His “Race to the Top” is committed to focusing on rewarding the best teachers and getting rid of those who aren’t cutting it, and using federal funds to do so. He’s supporting school closures and their replacement with public charter schools.

At the other end of the spectrum were the politicians and economists. The only one of this group that made any sense to me was Republican Eric Cantor, the new House Majority Leader. More typical was Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, who seemed to be clueless about what steps were required to get the economy growing and create private sector jobs. It was even more discouraging to listen to Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the new Republican Whip, who promised to block every spending bill, reduce the Fed’s charter, and generally serve as an obstructionist, without having anything positive to offer. After listening to Goolsbee and McCarthy, I made a mental note not to come back to Washington for anything remotely political during the next two years.

In sharp contrast, the nineteen proposals developed by the one hundred CEOs in attendance were logical, sensible, and hopeful. If only someone in Washington was listening! When it came time to vote on the final recommendations, I found it difficult not to support all nineteen of them as vastly superior to what we were hearing from the politicians.

The business community is blessed with a remarkable group of new corporate CEOs. As a group, they are pragmatic rather than ideological, slightly to the right of center, and willing to put the long-term interests of the country ahead of their short-term self interests.  They have learned the lessons from their predecessors’ failures, especially in chasing short-term stock price gains.

They seem committed to using their leadership roles and their company missions to create exceptional products and services for their customers, sustainable, well-paying jobs for their employees, and value for their shareholders. They keenly understand the important role that their companies play in building a growing economy and healthy communities, while preserving the societal ecosystems that have enabled capitalism to flourish for the past century. They too are extremely frustrated that no one in the White House or Congress seems to understand what it will take to get U.S. private-sector economy back to creating jobs and growing.

Bill’s Bottom Line: In spite of polls showing the American public lacks trust in its leaders, this new group of CEOs are worthy of trust and support for their ideas.


Additional Wall Street Journal Articles and Video Clips from the Meeting