Democrats or Republicans, Sales or Operations: How Business and Government are Similar

by Dr. Donald N. Sweet

Have you ever seen a business that reminds you of our Federal Government? I was at a management meeting of a business facing some difficult financial issues, not unlike our country in broad strokes? In these businesses, like in our country, the management meeting features two factions arguing with each other, protecting turf and constituents while seeming to forget about the health of the business.

When this happens in a business, we usually find that the organization has a very weak set of core values, if any at all. People on both sides of the table, or aisle, are only interested in what is good for their side. Long forgotten are the ideals that first brought them together. Gone are the memories of shared success during the growth periods. Personal and parochial agendas drive each side now.

When this happens in companies and red ink flows—like deficit spending in government–lending sources begin to dry up. It starts with borrowing becoming more expensive which causes higher deficits and the start of a downward spiral (aka: a death spiral). Often times lenders start to put demands on the organization and may go as far as requiring turnaround consultants being brought in to save the company.

Sometimes we may wish that would happen in Washington. From my doctoral dissertation research, turnaround consultants have three main levers to pull. First is changing the CEO, the leader who guided the ship into this mess. Second is selling any non-productive assets, property, buildings, equipment, stocks, etc. The final lever is expense reduction. Cash is king and it must be found and preserved.

This is where Washington can take a lesson from business. Minting money is not a solution to a financial crisis. Neither is gouging customers–tax payers. True, these “customers” may not have anyplace else to go in the near-term, but it is not a healthy long-term strategy.

How do organizations get in these difficult situations? We believe they lose sight of their core values. They forget how to work together, how to play well in the sandbox. Whatever the organization we are part of, we are only one part of a whole. When we start to identify with subgroups, operations, Republicans, sales, Democrats, we begin to lose sight of the purpose of the whole.

We find that when that happens the core values of, “continuous improvement”, “be terrific”, “always do the right thing”, “focus on the customer”, “our word is our bond”, etc. fall by the wayside. Core values are replaced by what’s best for my special interest group, not what is best for the entire organization. We need to continually guard against this happening and acknowledge that this tendency is as old as recorded history!

Continuous emphasis on the core values of the organization can help us overcome these issues. Good hiring practices tell us to hire people who have shown that they have our core values. Good management practices tell us to fire someone for violating one of our core values.

Verne Harnish of the Gazelles would caution us to have only a handful of these values. He further instructs us to repeat them over and again to ensure people continue to hear them. Of course, as leaders we must live those values, to model the way for others as Kouzes and Posner suggest.

Have a few core values. Communicate them continuously and effectively. Walk the talk. Hire people who share those values. Fire people who violate them. If we do that within our organizations our chances of success are greatly improved.

Can we do the same in our Government? What are our top five or six core values? They are the guiding light for our businesses. Why should that differ for our government? Should we enter into a national debate about the five or six things that are most important to us?

To be really core, values must be relatively few in number. When difficult decisions are to be made we should be looking to our core values to inform our deliberations. The Gazelles suggest that you only have five or six fundamental values. Too many and they lose their effectiveness. At the end of the day effectiveness is key for the team, the company, the party, the nation.

When operations and sales agree, the infighting falls away. The emphasis is put on the right issues, not what is best for my part of the team. At the end of the day we are all in this together. We believe Core Values are the glue that keep us together and and help us concentrate on the real problems and opportunities facing our organizations.