During any election cycle, comparisons to job interviews are circulated fairly broadly. Acknowledging some holes in the analogy, it is not altogether ill-fitting. The candidates are asking us to hire them, so it is not totally off base to suggest that an election is one long interview cycle with a giant, impersonal hiring committee. In a Presidential election, Americans are, at least approximately, one massive Board of Directors hiring a new CEO with an irrevocable four-year contract.
Throughout this election, Donald Trump built his campaign around his personal wealth as a proxy for his successes in the field of Real Estate Development and Management. His supporters invariably list his business successes as his primary qualification to be President. He did talk about all of his truly fantastic (his words…the best words) businesses in all kinds of industries, but none of those are materially important to the man or his case for the Presidency. Whatever his highly disputed net worth is, the sources are building things, operating them after they were built and (increasingly) selling his own celebrity.
It seems a natural, then, to apply the “job interview” analogy to our incoming President and to ask a pretty simple question: If you sat on the board of a massive enterprise, would you hire Donald Trump to run that enterprise? If this man, with this philosophy, resume and personality sat for an interview, is he the kind of candidate that would excite you as a potential chief executive? And since that hiring decision has already been made, what can we take from this framework to help us evaluate him going forward?
Conveniently for you, lucky reader, I go through this process pretty regularly, and I am here to help. Other than wasting time on Twitter, the largest component of my day is spent seeking, interviewing, hiring and firing, reassigning, evaluating and compensating executives. This can range from second level executives at companies with 100 employees all the way to CEO’s or companies larger than the Trump Organization. I’m objectively good at it, or at least the people who pay me think so.
Disclaimers: no, I am not perfect. I have absolutely made bad hires and passed over people I shouldn’t have. Nor would I ever claim that there is only one way to do this…everyone has their own interview style and a pretty wide variety can work for different people in different circumstances. But I hire a lot of people, and I have well-formed opinions on the process that are demonstrably valuable.
To the question, then: would I hire Donald Trump? The answer is pretty simple, although it would be shorter if I didn’t feel the need to swear. Not on your fucking life.
I’ll start with the positive. He is clearly a pretty good developer. I think you can chalk much of his success up to “right place, right time,” but it would be disingenuous to dismiss all of his successes as being a function of just inherited wealth or his accidental location in a market that has generated outsized returns for three decades. Simply noting that he’s not as good at it as Stephen Ross or Richard LaFrek is hardly a damning criticism. He builds beautiful buildings, and he tackles projects that feature incredibly complex approval processes requiring navigation through local, city and state boards in abundance.
Further, with incomplete information, it appears as if people genuinely like working for him. Sure, there are stray anecdotes of disgruntled employees and poor working conditions, but generally speaking, for someone with his profile and that many ex-employees, there is not an overwhelming amount of criticism of him. Again, that is a judgment based only on what I can observe – I haven’t stalked Indeed for reviews, for example – but it appears that he takes care of his people and that they enjoy working for him (Trump Model Management seems to be an outlier on this…)
In other words, his resume is fine. He is not an abjectly incompetent executive. I understand why the recruiter forwarded his name to us…it is an interesting background. But we don’t hire resumes, and we don’t even hire strategic plans or interesting visions of the future. We hire people.
We hire people to be stewards of our organizations and, by extension, our money and good name. Certainly, I ask questions about their assessment of the business and their thoughts on new products, changes to products, eliminating products, etc…but those questions are less about assessing the applicant’s technical skills and understanding, and more about gauging his or her personality. I want to know how they handle adversity, how they develop talent, how they approach ethical dilemmas, how they react to change and how they drive others to change.
I generally evaluate a CEO’s candidacy based on three broad categories: is this person intellectually, temperamentally and morally the right fit for the job? Does this person have the basic understanding and intelligence to do the job, can they remain focused and effectively manage the resources available to execute the job, and is this a person that I trust with our investors’ money? The specific definition of those categories and their weighting may vary by job and by the skills of the existing management team, but everything usually goes towards evaluating along that framework.
Donald Trump fails each of these tests as it relates to the Presidency. His understanding of what the President does, or can do, is frighteningly misguided. What’s worse, not only is his technical understanding of policy limited and intentionally uninformed, but he absurdly refuses to acknowledge that this is not the case. It is simply impossible to imagine that anyone would ever hire an executive who revels in his own demonstrably false universe as Trump does. Imagine that a candidate to be CEO of an energy conglomerate sat down, claimed confidently that US Oil and Gas Production has been falling consistently for 30 years, and then ignored your correction of that fact by announcing that such a thing was preposterous, as he knows more about drilling than the engineers. Were it Trump, he would probably continue to cite his own fact throughout the interview process even after he has been corrected.
Many great CEO’s (non-founders, especially) have a similar temperament that I would describe as “steady, realistic optimism.” There are ebbs and flows to the operating of any organization as teams get good news and bad news from a variety of sources. When big news hits, especially bad, the organization is going to take its reaction cues from the top, and the ability of the CEO to project an air of calm is vitally important. Whatever happens, the team has to feel like the boss fully understands the severity of the situation and is confident that they can work it out. CEO’s can’t get flustered, they can’t lash out, they can’t blame others, and they can’t let anyone think they have lost hope. Nobody follows a general if they think he has given up on winning the war.
I try to make potential executives uncomfortable while I interview them. It is hard to simulate a crisis in an interview setting, but it is helpful to see how they react to stress. I ask unfair questions and ask them to answer for failures that are either exaggerated or beyond their scope of responsibility. The very best candidates answer in almost the exact opposite of the way that Trump handles questions like this. Good executives remain calm, accept blame (even when it could be deflected) and can honestly assess their own performance. They don’t chide or scold the interviewer, they don’t insult anyone or whine about the unfairness of what happened to them.
When asked about taking a company into bankruptcy, the best answers are along the lines of “I missed XYZ trend. Our customer’s preferences changed, we were slow to react, and our competitors got it right” and usually they can tell you what they learned by the experience. They generally do not feature “Meh, everyone does it. But I was especially awesome at it because I am so generally awesome.” If, and I am just throwing random examples out here, they blew threw a billion dollars of other people’s money because they were grossly overleveraged, I probably wouldn’t be terribly excited about hearing them discuss their still-existing fondness for being grossly overleveraged. I like my executives to learn lessons.
Finally, a CEO is, even when closely watched by the Board, the holder of the keys to the organization. They have near-total day-to-day control over the organization and all of its resources, and the Board has no choice but to rely on the personal integrity of the CEO. I’m not going to lay out the laundry list of Trump’s personal, professional and political moral failings, but sufficed to say that I wouldn’t trust him with even the smallest amount of my own money.
Obviously, the ship has already sailed on this hiring decision: Trump won the election months ago. I do think, however, that this helps to explain why some people, me included, are not in a huge hurry to “give him a chance” or to “see what he does when he is President” and why we don’t get excited by a seemingly strong appointment or a positive policy development. The problem with the man isn’t just his ideas on policy, the problem is him. He is unfit to hold the office, to make the day-to-day decisions vested in the office and to provide the sort of leadership that a good executive provides.
Being an executive isn’t simply about laying out a policy vision (which Trump sucks at anyway) nearly as much as it is about executing on that vision and adapting that vision to the certain-to-change environment. I don’t trust Donald Trump to do that because he has never shown that he has the judgment to do so, and has repeatedly demonstrated that he will do what is personally expedient if it conflicts with what is good for the organization.
Let’s say, for example, that he announces a new tax plan. Setting aside for the moment that the plans he has discussed are insanely stupid, let’s just assume that it is a reasonable plan that promises to do the things that I want to see in a tax plan: simplify the code, lower of rates and eliminate deductions. While I would rather he does that than promote a plan with different characteristics, I still wouldn’t be able to get excited. The problem, of course, is that he is still the one responsible for working out the details of that plan, and for guiding that plan through Congress without being ruined, and for implementing that plan though his IRS should it pass.
And I almost don’t care what his announced foreign policy is because he is too conflicted and has too much history of putting his own interests first for me to make the assumption that he is doing anything in the interest of anyone other than himself or his family. If we have learned anything from President Obama’s international agreements, it is that the details matter, oftentimes more than the big picture does. We will never know those details until long after any agreement is reached, and there is simply no basis to rely on Trump’s judgment in these matters. He tells me that we are going to sign “great trade deals,” and everything he has ever done and said points to “great” meaning “in the best interest of the Trump Organization and its principals.”
I am aware that conservatives are largely happy with Trump’s cabinet appointments, but I think they are overly generous in doing so. With several (Rick Perry and Ben Carson, for example) he has demonstrated the same disdain for field expertise that marks his own candidacy. But even in cases where I might like his nominee, Trump’s own history of meddling, micromanaging and bullying his own people leads me to doubt the effectiveness of any of his nominees. This is not a man who would listen to an Attorney General who tells him that crime is falling, a Treasury Secretary who warns against a currency war or a Defense Secretary who cautions him against violating the Geneva Convention.
The problem, again, isn’t necessarily with the appointees, it is with their boss.
So, count me out of the “let him get in there and see what he does” crowd. I will assume that everything he says or does is poorly conceived and executed until he can prove otherwise. He hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt. When he starts to talk and act like a responsible and capable executive, I will begin to treat him like one.
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