Good Business Can Make for Bad Politics

By Chris Nolan  |  Posted 2005-03-23

Good Business Can Make for Bad Politics

Two events of the past week, both starring Silicon Valley heavyweights, provide useful lessons on making the transition from business to politics.

Its like mixing oil and water. Sometimes, you gotta shake hard before you can get them together.

Late last week came the announcement that former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina would not be President Bushs nominee to run the World Bank.

Theres also been a steady drumbeat of stories about the inability—or, unwillingness, its hard to tell—to play politics on the part of the folks who bankrolled and supported Californias $3 billion bond referendum for stem cell research.

One the surface, these dont seem like the same issue. But dig a bit deeper. There are a few lessons to absorb here.

Many of techs self-styled political leaders have a businesspersons view of the world: Theyre in charge, theyll do the job. If they dont, shareholders will let them know.

But, the criteria for doing a good job are different for each group.

Voters arent interested in making money; theyre interesting in not seeing their money wasted.

Now, many readers wrote in and cited HPs current stock price as evidence that Fiorina didnt have the management chops to run anything. But thats probably not why she didnt get the job.

No, Fiorina probably didnt get the World Bank job because word that she was up for it leaked before the White House was ready to spread the news.

Read more here about early speculation about Fiorina being in the running to become the next World Bank president.

In the business world, advance leaks can be a way to build credibility for an idea or a project. When a deal is done, theres no better way to make sure the pages get inked than to spread the word.

Leaks are often used that way in politics, too.

But not by this White House. Blabbing ahead of the news is a good way to take the done out of the deal and that, it seems likely, is what happened to Fiorina.

This could mar her chance for other political appointments with this administration, for sure.

And, of course, news of her interest in the World Bank job has sent a signal that she not interested in another corporate job. Probably not what was intended.

Next Page: The stem cell storm.

The stem cell storm

Here in California, many of those who supported the stem cell ballot initiative are worried about what looks like a brewing political storm.

Robert Klein, the Palo Alto, Calif., real estate developer who pushed the measure to passage, has been making some serious missteps, sending the wrong signals about how hell deal with state officials.

His organization, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, and the 29-member panel that oversees its work, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee, have run into trouble over what—to a businessperson—sound like technical details.

As usual, an attempt to reach a spokeswoman for Klein wasnt successful.

Kleins organization has been lobbied hard by lawmakers to make members of three key advisory "working groups" part of state open government law.

Right now those groups, which will make recommendations on grants and studies, on loans and other funding and other programs to the full committee, will be regulated by that committee.

Members arent subject to Californias somewhat rigorous financial disclosure law, and they are exempt from the states open meeting laws.

In other words, they can meet in secret, and they dont have to reveal details about their financial affairs.

In business, of course, this is standard. To a businessperson these sound like concerns that will only slow down the commissions good work.

But in politics, details about public disclosure arent trivial.

No one wants to be the legislator who backed a flim-flam artists self-dealing; its political kryptonite.

In this case—more than $250 million a year for 10 years—the money is enormous.

Klein has said hell take the suggestions that have been made to his committee while pointing out that the organizations critics are those who failed to support the measure.

That may be, but theyve found friends—powerful friends—in the California Legislature.

Like Fiorina, Klein has erred, counting on what he knows to be true in business to be true in politics.

Instead of placating critics, stem cell backers may now have another fight at the ballot box on their hands.

Carly Fiorina missed out on a marvelous political opportunity. She may easily find another job, although chances are it wont be as good.

And the stem cell folks might right themselves politically before the fall.

But some more careful attention to details is in order. Technology and Politics columnist Chris Nolan spent years chronicling the excesses of the dot-com era with incisive analysis leavened with a dash of humor. Before that, she covered politics and technology in D.C. You can read her musings on politics and technology every day in her Politics from Left to Right Weblog.

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