Everyone who hasn’t already made up their mind is currently wondering whether Trump would make a good president. Despite the collective interest in this question, I submit that the election has raised another, equally fundamental question—and one that Trump himself should be even more concerned about: Is Trump a good businessman?
On the one hand, the answer is obvious. He has made billions and billions of dollars, which is billions and billions more than me or most other people. So, from a financial standpoint, the answer is an obvious and resounding yes.
And yet, I submit that the events of this election cycle have made it an important question to ask, if only because presidents have to do more than develop brilliant policies. They have to run what amounts to one of the biggest and most powerful organizations in the world.
So let’s ask the question. Let me simply present the following ten competencies, all of which any business school professor would say everyone who runs any organization must have. Have Trump’s behaviors on the campaign trail suggested he has them? You be the judge:
Negotiating effectively. The best businesspeople find ways to not only claim value from others but create value that benefits their counterparts as well as themselves. Trump has certainly done the former, but has he done the latter? You be the judge.
Listening to advisors. The best businesspeople know how to close their mouths and open their ears when trusted advisers speak. Has Trump shown a propensity to listen? Your call.
Establishing clear roles and responsibilities. The best businesspeople make it crystal-clear what everyone in their organization is supposed to be doing, and how everyone’s role is distinguished from everyone else’s. What, if anything, do the well-documented turf battles in Trump’s organization say about his ability to draw up roles and responsibilities?
Understanding and growing the customer base. The best businesspeople appeal to the largest and most diverse set group of customers, in this case voters. Has Trump?
Building a strong financial base. The best businesspeople establish the strongest possible financial foundation for their organization, in this case the most extensive fundraising operation they can. Has Trump done that? You decide.
Communicating clearly and consistently with the market. The best businesspeople develop a message and stick to it, whatever direction the wind blows or spirit moves. Has Trump been clear and/or consistent in his policy prescriptions?
Communicating clearly and consistently within the organization. The best businesspeople also deploy their excellent communication skills within their organizations, e.g. by making sure that their employees always know exactly what they’re about to say and do. Has Trump?
Forming mutually-beneficial partnerships. The best businesspeople identify people who could helpfully support one another, in this case people like Paul Ryan and John McCain. Has Trump effectively partnered with such parties? You be the judge.
Promoting based on talent. The best businesspeople promote the best people as their closest advisors. They avoid the temptation of nepotism, trusting the people with the best ideas rather than the best name. Has Trump?
Responding to market data. The best businesspeople make a course correction when the market indicates that things aren’t working. How responsive has Trump been to his poll numbers?
I put these questions to you because it’s important for each of us to answer for ourselves. And I put #10 last because it’s the one about which I personally feel most equivocal, the last few weeks having provided some indication that Trump is charting a course correction.
So what do you think? Is Trump a good businessman? Can he run a big organization, be it a business organization or a big public organization? If he becomes the president of our country, let us all hope so.
In that sense, he’s following the advice in one of my earlier posts, as aggressive first offers can often make life more negotiable. And I’m sure it’s because he carefully studied that post.
Yet, Trump has also made a habit of coupling his first offers with other, more curious and less comprehensible tactics. In this post, I’d like to highlight what they are, advising you to stay away from them if you’re using the first offer to make life negotiable:
Calling it a tactic. Aggressive anchors work, in part, because they convince the other side you mean business—that you might actually have a plan to strong-arm the Mexicans or nuke the Islamic State. But that’s only when you avoid suggesting you don’t. Shortly after making each of the first offers above, Trump labeled them negotiating tactics, implying that he didn’t really mean what he said. For example, he followed the nuclear comment by saying: “at a minimum, I want them to think maybe we would.” If you’re going to make a first offer, say it like you mean it and don’t call it a tactic. Otherwise, you look weaker than if you hadn’t made the first offer in the first place.
Waffling. Trump has the habit of staking out an aggressive position on one talk show, saying the opposite on the next talk show, then going back to the initial position on the third talk show. For some humorous examples, see this Washington Post article. As I’ve said in a previous post, there’s nothing inherently wrong with changing your mind when the situation demands. But reversing most of the aggressive positions you take when nothing has changed suggests confusion, at best. If you’re going to make a first offer, don’t make the second offer; and if you do, don’t make it the opposite of the first offer.
Overshooting. As I’ve said before, the best first offers are aggressive but realistic; they are not outrageous, as outrageous offers just drive the other side away. So when you offer to simultaneously deport 11 million illegal immigrants, that probably doesn’t convince your potential negotiating partners in Congress you’re serious. It makes them laugh (or cry). If you’re going to make a first offer, try to make one that the other side finds just slightly unacceptable, not completely unbelievable.
I’m not a billionaire, nor on the cusp of becoming president. So, let me be measured in my critique and admit that there may be a method to his maneuvers, insofar as they make him look unpredictable. But if you’re planning to make the first offer, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you adopt his approach. Instead, make a confident, consistent, realistic first offer that the other side will probably take seriously.
Does flexibility help or hurt in dealing with others? Last week’s Republican debate featured a vigorous discussion of the issue. Trump sang the praises of flexibility, saying, “I’ve never seen a successful person who wasn’t flexible and who didn’t have a certain degree of flexibility.” Rubio noted the drawbacks, suggesting that Trump was so flexible he should do some yoga moves. Who’s right?
Sorry to say that negotiation research indicates it’s much more complicated than the politicians make it out to be. In particular, research suggests that flexibility is helpful in some circumstances and harmful in others. Thus, although this is not a blog about politics, I thought this might be another appropriate time to wade into the national discussion. So what does research have to say on when to be flexible?
When you’re talking about means rather than ends. You go into a negotiation to achieve specific ends, often called your interests. The tactics you use to achieve those interests are your means. Rubio is right that flip-flopping on your core interests amounts to wimpiness. But Trump is right that flexibility on how you get there—the kinds of means you consider—is often the only way to find any way there at all. The best negotiators are rigid on their interests but flexible on the possible pathways that lead them there.
When you’re talking about a relatively unimportant tissue. In any negotiation, some issues matter a great deal. You just have to find a house with better schools. Other issues are less essential. A fireplace would be nice but you could probably live without it. Rubio is right that flexibility on the critical issues is foolish. But Trump is right that rigidity on the unimportant issues is too. The best negotiators know how to flexibly trade their less important issues in order to stubbornly insist on their most important issues.
When the facts change. Sometimes, the world frustratingly changes its mind in the middle of the negotiation. Your salary bump isn’t quite as big as expected—and as needed to afford that big house. In a stable and unchanging world, Rubio is right that shifting positions is the mark of a wobbly leader. In the changing world we often encounter, however, Trump is right that leaders have to adapt. The best negotiators know how to hold firm in stable times but adapt as instability arises.
When your tastes change. Sometimes the world stays the same, but it’s you that changes your mind. Perhaps you thought you could deal with that split-level floorplan, but you’re now thinking it would make you nauseous each time you open the door. Rubio is right that the leader of the free world shouldn’t let their tastes shift whimsically with the wind. But Trump is right that real people do change their minds. The best negotiators know how to establish firm preferences but change their positions if their preferences happen to meander.
When you realize you’ve made a mistake. Sometimes, you realize you made a big flippin’ error. Your initial decision was just downright wrong. You didn’t look hard enough at the school data; now that you do, you know you can’t buy this house. Rubio was right that the president can’t afford too many judgment errors. But Trump was right that holding firm in the face of an error is foolhardy. (In fact, it’s a documented decision bias called escalation of commitment.) The best negotiators know how to make and stick to the best decisions but also admit their errors and flexibly move on.
I wish that the truth about flexibility was as simple as a soundbite about small hands. But the world doesn’t care what I wish, and we’ve heard more than enough about hand size anyway. So the best leaders can only use their best judgment about the situations they face, trying to determine whether those situations call for enlightened flexibility or firm intransigence.