Washington As chief executive officer of America Inc., Barack Obama has walked the factory floor when it comes to managing the federal response to the Gulf oil spill, going directly to front-line workers.
He’s used wiles respected in the boardroom in wringing a $20 billion commitment from BP.
But what was that talk about kicking butt? That’s so assembly line Ford Motor Co., circa 1930.
And why on Earth did it take him so long to talk to BP’s chief? A real CEO would have had Tony Hayward on the phone in a New York minute.
The president is not, of course, the head of a company. He’s accountable to the public in ways a chief executive is not to shareholders. Governance and politics differ from effective corporate management while sharing certain qualities.
But everyone wants to see the get-it-done ethic of the business world play out in the Gulf of Mexico and in the often confused lines of federal authority. A temporary cap on the ruptured well has held since it was attached on July 15; a permanent fix is expected in August. Since the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, between 94 million and 184 million gallons have leaked into the Gulf.
The Gulf calamity, like the presidency itself, is a crash course in executive management for a man who came to office with no such experience to speak of. How’s he doing?
A mix of real-world CEOs and business theorists interviewed by The Associated Press sketched out qualities of a corporate executive and judged Obama by them:
Consult, don’t insult
Obama’s tough words about BP while refusing for weeks to talk to Hayward. The dispatching of the attorney general to the Gulf in a prelude to legal action. The keister-kicking threat. It all might make for good politics — or it might not.
To Drew Greenblatt, president of Marlin Steel Wire Products LLC of Baltimore, it was a failure of executive leadership. CEOs talk first and sue only if necessary, he says.
“Those are inflammatory strategies,” he says. “We don’t want people rushing to their lawyers at this moment. We want people to cap the oil well rather than the idea well.
“American factories don’t think this way. We try to come up with clever ideas of how to get out of this pickle. The first thing we should be focused on is solving problems, not placing blame.”
Greenblatt found it “stunning” that Obama let so much time lapse before meeting the BP chief after the spill. “I would have had Hayward in my office that afternoon.”
Dyke Messenger, CEO of Power Curbers, a manufacturer and exporter of concrete paving machines in Salisbury, N.C., said earlier meetings with BP leaders would have helped both sides push common goals for the response. Obama and the BP brass “are the ones who make decisions for those organizations, and if you’ve got common thought at the senior level then it flows down from there,” he said.
That common purpose would discourage Obama from publicly flogging BP — a tempting move given public anger toward the company. Messenger said both sides would have been more focused, earlier, on plugging the hole.
“He can’t make a deal with BP at the CEO level then turn around and hammer them,” Messenger said.
Getting with the people
Although Obama is big on “transparency,” the Oval Office lacks the glass walls favored by many in business as a way for bosses to stay connected with workers.
That’s why it’s been important for him to visit the Gulf and talk to response workers and citizens — his way of walking the factory floor, Messenger says.
“Sometimes they hit you between the eyes with a comment you just hadn’t thought of,” he says about the employees he encounters this way. “For Obama, that’s where being on the ground and talking to citizens makes a difference.”
Chain of command
For much of the time, the crisis has lacked a clear sense of who is really in charge. That’s a source of frustration, if not outrage, especially among Gulf leaders and residents.
Obama “created a sense of far greater control than the government actually has at this point,” said George G. Daly, dean of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.
He questioned whether the flashes of temper from the president, as seen when he said he’d fire Hayward if he could, are useful and authentic.
“He has a cool, articulate, analytical style,” Daly said. “He traded it for this angry rhetoric that may not have suited him well in this particular interest.”