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What happened to the ‘best and most serious people’?

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Bill Gates made clear the importance of people: “The key for us, number one, has always been hiring very smart people.” Steve Jobs’ approach was similar: “The secret of my success is that we have gone to exceptional lengths to hire the best people in the world.”     

In reality, strong recruiting capabilities resulting in outstanding hires is no great secret at all. It is basic business. Among the most important decisions any executive makes are hiring decisions.   The team of people leaders surround themselves with will go a long way toward determining an organization’s success or failure.

{mosads}For this reason, most successful companies spend significant time defining the key characteristics they look for in talent, and then immense focus on finding and hiring that talent. During my tenure as CEO of Bridgestone Americas, the company’s growth in profitability outperformed the S&P 500. Our success would not have been possible without a strong team — and that, in turn, would not have been possible without great focus on building strong recruiting capabilities so that we would have the right talent in the right place.  


As a presidential candidate, Trump purportedly understood this fundamental business proposition. He promised he would hire only “the best and most serious people.” President Trump, however, is acting like a business novice.

A recent article in the Washington Post, “Behind the chaos: Office that vets Trump appointees plagued by inexperience,” details an alarming state of affairs in the little known but quite important Office of Presidential Personnel. The OPP oversees the selection process for about 1,400 presidential appointments, including some 400 positions at the highest levels of the executive branch. The Post reports that the OPP is about a third the size of prior administrations, staffed with people who have little experience, and some of whom made material misrepresentations about what little experience they do have.  

Shockingly, the article describes an office where its members sit “vaping” on the couch, serve beer and wine with snacks, play drinking games, and engage in nepotism. If accurate, this would fit few people’s definition of hiring only “the most serious.” As the article notes, it also is in stark contrast with prior administrations that retained experienced, credentialed people to lead this important function.  

The objective results suggest the Washington Post probably is not far off the mark. Trump has had fewer candidates confirmed for critical government posts than any of the past five presidents at this point in his presidency — as of the end of March, 387 approvals compared to 548 for President Obama and 615 for President Bush. Trump, who never shoulders blame for anything, faults Senate Democrats for their delays. But he cannot blame Democrats for the fact that he has sent far fewer names to the Senate for confirmation than recent prior presidents over the same period.

In January 2017, Trump claimed that his cabinet had the highest IQ of any cabinet ever. Quite a claim, given that George Washington’s cabinet included no less than Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and, if one includes the vice president, John Adams.  

After hiring such a self-proclaimed intelligent group, Trump replaced three of them in just over a year. We are left with the likes of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who avoids visiting underprivileged schools that need her most; Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who proposed removing the prohibition against discrimination from the mission of the department he leads; and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who is more bent on promoting short-term economic development than protecting the only environment we have.  

The story is the same for Trump’s other critical advisers. The disaster with his first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, is well known. Trump recently replaced his chief economic advisor (Gary Cohn from Goldman Sachs) with a CNBC commentator who does not hold even a bachelor’s degree in economics. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, considered one of the top thinkers in the military, was fired — only to be replaced with a Fox News commentator who the Senate previously would not confirm as secretary of state. More broadly, of the 43 Trump nominees in science-related positions, almost 60 percent do not have an advanced degree in science. A rare person can excel in the sciences despite the lack of advanced formal education, but that is rare indeed.

To paraphrase David Ogilvy, the father of modern-day marketing, a leader who hires people who are bigger than he ends with a company of giants. That is common sense and basic business sense, and it applies with equal force to governments and other organizations.

President Washington, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and many others had the right recipe for making great things to happen, and a key ingredient is surrounding oneself with the best and brightest.   But President Trump’s frail ego can’t stomach people bigger than he. In the end, the America people likely will suffer from Trump’s inability to honor his own commitment.

Gary A. Garfield is the retired chairman, president and CEO of Bridgestone Americas Inc. He practiced law for 29 years and was the general counsel and chief compliance officer before leading the company.

Tags Ben Carson Betsy DeVos Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign Gary Cohn Scott Pruitt

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