Why CEOs Like Rex Tillerson Fail in Washington – John Paul Rollert | The Atlantic

Why CEOs Like Rex Tillerson Fail in Washington

Although the former secretary of state’s contentious relationship with the president didn’t help matters, Tillerson’s management style left a department in disarray.

John Paul Rollert | The Atlantic

Rex Tillerson is hardly the first person to be targeted in a tweet from Donald Trump, but on Tuesday morning, he became the first Cabinet official to be fired by one. It was an ignominious end to Tillerson’s 13-month stint as secretary of state, a tenure that would have been undistinguished if it weren’t so entirely destructive.   

Compared with expectations for other members of Trump’s Cabinet, the disastrous results of Tillerson’s time in office are somewhat surprising. Unlike the EPA’s Scott Pruitt, Tillerson did not have obvious antipathy for the department he headed; unlike HUD’s Ben Carson, he had professional experience that was relevant to the job; and unlike Education’s Betsy DeVos, his confirmation hearing wasn’t a disaster.

The fact that Tillerson publicly clashed with Trump over everything from North Korea policy to relative IQ did nothing to make his job any easier, but his sorry legacy as secretary of state was sealed by a complete misunderstanding of the job before him. Rather than the nation’s top diplomat and an embodiment abroad of American values, Tillerson appeared to regard his mandate as little more than an exercise in cost-cutting and corporate reorganization.

His time at the State Department seemed to test beliefs that are popular among many private sector professionals: Skills that business executives bring to Washington can outweigh government experience, and almost every problem can be reduced to a matter of efficiency. That Tillerson should succumb to these beliefs is not altogether surprising given the benefits and blind spots of his experience in business.

Just a few weeks before he became the nation’s highest diplomat, Tillerson was CEO of ExxonMobil, one of the largest companies on Earth. It was a position he had held for more than a decade, one that required him to supervise a highly complex organization with nearly 70,000 employees and an annual budget that routinely topped $40 billion, all while successfully conducting business the world over. In other words, by the time he accepted the offer to join the Trump Administration, the Fortune 10 CEO had already enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the private sector, a track record that had endowed him with the experience, expertise, and administrative excellence that one could assume would make him a highly capable, even accomplished, secretary of state.

Tillerson certainly seemed to think so, notwithstanding the fact that he hadn’t spent any time in diplomacy or, for that matter, government affairs. He had barely introduced himself to the career civil servants at Foggy Bottom before he concluded that the agency they staffed was a portrait of bureaucratic mismanagement.

“We had very long-standing disciplined processes and decision-making, I mean highly structured, that allows you to accomplish a lot,” he told reporters in July of his time at ExxonMobil. “Those are not the characteristics of the United States government.”

Initially, career diplomats were receptive to the idea that a successful CEO might draw on his experience in the private sector to help renovate the bureaucracy of State. “To a person, we felt the department was in need of reform,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran diplomat and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told Bloomberg in the fall. They withdrew their welcome, however, when, in Thomas-Greenfield’s words, they came to “understand” that the goal of the new secretary of state “was not to improve the organization but to deconstruct it.”

Or “redesign” it, the term Tillerson favored and one he used interchangeably as a noun and a verb. “We’re going to redesign,” he told State Department staff during a town-hall meeting in December.

But even beyond the risk of degrading the State Department’s mission in a misguided attempt to improve its operations, Tillerson made the greatest mistake for any CEO:  He mis-allocated his time.

According to Bloomberg, in the first eight months of his tenure, Tillerson traveled less than half as much as either of his predecessors in the Obama administration, preferring to hole himself up with a small coterie of subordinates in the executive suite of the Harry S. Truman Building and tinker with the elements of his “redesign”.

Tillerson’s delight for the eye-glazing jargon of management consulting was a hallmark of his “redesign”. Tillerson’s acquiescence to the administration’s demands hardly endeared him to the career foreign-service staff, many of whom understood what Tillerson’s ambition for the State Department effectively amounted to: “No one is ever going to be as excited about the redesign as the secretary himself,” a State Department official told Vanity Fair after the town-hall meeting. “Everyone understands what that really means — it means people losing their jobs.”

One, Elizabeth Shackelford – a senior-level diplomat, blasted the secretary in her resignation letter when she exited in November.

“I have deep respect for the career Foreign and Civil Service staff who, despite the stinging disrespect this administration has shown our profession, continue the struggle to keep our foreign policy on the positive trajectory necessary to avert global disaster in increasingly dangerous times,” she wrote. “With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department’s experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers.”

In many respects, Tillerson’s efforts may be regarded as a textbook example of a familiar phenomenon of new administrations — testing, in real time, theories of how government ought to work.

Fair enough, but efficiency is always a matter of the means to a certain end; it is never an end in itself. Unfortunately, the latter view is common among many business professionals, for whom greater efficiency is synonymous with greater profit, the ultimate end of their labors.

The same logic doesn’t apply to government agencies, however. They can always benefit from greater efficiency, but their ultimate success is never measured by profit margins. This may seem like a simple fact, but for corporate executives, like Tillerson, who have adhered to the mantra of efficiency for decades, it can lead to a confusion of ends and means when they enter government service.

Such confusion threatens their ability to discharge their duties responsibly, but it can be lethal if it is supported by two assumptions that are fairly common among conservatives: The American government is hopelessly inefficient, and resolving this problem is the key to government working for a change.

These assumptions can hamstring executives entering government by convincing them that they have nothing essential to learn from their new peers who, in turn, have everything to gain from their experience.

“I have sympathy with everyone with experience in the private sector who comes into a government agency and thinks ‘this is not how things worked at my old office,’” Daniel Baer, the former United States ambassador for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the Obama administration, noted in an email. “I have less sympathy for folks who think, after a month or two, that they can simply import their prior world and impose it on their new one.”

At the December town hall, sensing that his job was in peril, Tillerson tried to win some allies and make amends. “When I came to the State Department, I didn’t know any of you,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about your culture, I didn’t know anything about what motivates you, I didn’t know anything about your work, I didn’t know anything about how you get your work done.”

It was a bracing admission, courageous even, but insofar as Tillerson would go on to highlight the crucial importance of having integrated the USAID and State Department global address lists — in more ways than one, it seems clear he never learned his lessons. 

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