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Mike Robinson: Harper doesn’t make the grade as CEO

Theoretically the political world and the corporate world are separate.

Theoretically the political world and the corporate world are separate.

But recently in Canada, say the last eight years, corporate dominance has so overshadowed our federal political scene that many question the independence of thought in the Conservative party, and especially the Prime Minister’s Office.

On economic policy and foreign affairs files, Canada now speaks increasingly with the voice of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — the industry’s lobby group — and seems to draw its economic policy from the Fraser Institute, both western organizations with great empathy for profit, small government and tax breaks for corporations.

To be fair, there is nothing inherently wrong with profit, efficiencies in public administration and reasonable tax regimes. They are all in the public interest. What becomes problematic is advancing these causes as the primary purpose of democratic government in a civil society. A majority government, even a plurality majority, has the duty to govern in the best interests of all the citizens and to promote the public good.

These duties require leadership that is comfortable with nuances, that listens and reflects, and has a searching eye for the middle ground. It is not well served by a leader in the thrall of dogmatism, who bases decisions on how they will serve his corporate base. To paraphrase former prime minister Jean Chrétien, Canada’s PM cannot be headwaiter to the oil patch.

Given that we live in a corporatist democracy, we should sharpen our collective understanding of how the corporation measures leadership success. Arguably, we should then evaluate our prime minister using these criteria.

Any student of the business media, from Yahoo Finance to Forbes magazine, will know that CEO longevity is closely tied to corporate performance. When times are tough, CEO reigns are short. Since the crash of 2008, CEOs of major global corporations have been serving as little as two to three years before dismissal.

However, a recent Forbes article quotes an academic study making the point that in 2014, American CEO tenure has expanded to 9.7 years, and that this increase has been fed by the robust stock market over the past three years. The article also notes that corporate insiders are getting the fast track to the penthouse corner office. Most corporations that have been successful, in terms of stock market performance, will choose insider CEOs.

To assess the effectiveness of our “corporate PM,” I spoke with several retired CEOs and CFOs. They reinforced James Carville’s dictum that, as always, “It’s the economy, stupid.” A good economy will normally reinforce the perception that the CEO is doing a good job, even though his or her actual performance might be less so.

On this criterion, the PM has some air under his wings, but it is closely tied to oil prices and flailing pipeline projects. If the carbon-divestment trend in global pension plans and university endowments continues to grow, Canada’s economy increasingly looks like an old one-trick pony.

Great CEOs also pay attention to their VPs and CFOs, and especially their board members. They listen above, below and outside. Many recent PMO decisions (think “Duffygate”) look remarkably unadvised by these types of colleagues, if at all. The accumulation of stupid mistakes doesn’t augur well for CEO retention.

The great CEO stays physically fit and exudes stamina. Think Richard Branson or Mark Carney. The job is enormously taxing, mentally, physically and emotionally. CEOs are effectively on deck 24/7, and must frequently radiate charm for diverse audiences. It helps if they have a sport they are good at (think Chip Wilson as a competitive swimmer). The PM has work to do on all these fronts.

Finally, the great CEO motivates his management team with a compelling vision that people buy into and venerate. The younger members will want to identify with the ideas and even the personal style of the boss. Leaders as different as Ronald Reagan and Pierre Trudeau were inspirational in their times to their staffs and associated bureaucracies. Does the PM have such a vision?

Overall, our CEO PM has never looked comfortable in the position. If the economy stays flat and the pipelines fizzle; if the PM stays out of the gym; if more stupid mistakes occur; if the vision remains more of the same — this CEO is cruising towards a deserved involuntary dismissal.

Troy Media columnist Mike Robinson has been a CEO in Canadian scientific and cultural NGOs for 28 years.