Early in my career it was not unusual for corporate senior executives to take time off from their private-sector careers and take a position in public service. In fact, it was encouraged. Public service was seen as an important development opportunity for executives. Active and retired CEO’s often viewed it as a unique opportunity for them to contribute to the country’s well-being.
Sadly, that was then. Now, as I speak with many CEO’s, COO’s and other C-suite executives, few are willing to consider making a career move into public service.
When asked why, they cite anti-business attitudes, government bureaucracy, and partisan politics that are toxic and unproductive. From their point of view, they have watched politicians twist the truth and manipulate the facts to suit their agenda rather than engage in thoughtful, constructive debate. I myself have seen how political dysfunction can trump effective bipartisan policy development.
One former CEO summed it up best: “After my experience with the Congress, the Executive Branch and the political process, any interest I may have had in public service has been completely extinguished.”
Ethical business leaders of publically held companies are expected to adhere to a core set of business practices within an ethical and legal framework. These frameworks are set forth by a variety of legal and regulatory bodies including the SEC, as well as by their corporate code of conduct.
Business leaders are not judged on a “Pinocchio meter,” which is based on how much the truth has been stretched. The SEC appropriately has a far stricter standard. Corporate executives are expected to provide prompt and accurate disclosure to their shareholders; which means delivering good or bad news, quickly and without shading the truth.
For example, CEO’s are required to personally certify their financial reports under potential civil and criminal penalties. Increasingly, corporate boards are making certain the corporate code of conduct is fully enforced at all levels.
It is clear that while governing is different than running a business, I believe the absence of the business community’s presence in government will inhibit job creation and economic growth. As a country, we would be well served if more senior executives were directly engaged in public service.