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Of special interest

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One of the most questionable ideas in this year’s presidential campaign is the asserted importance of “standing up to entrenched interests.”

It does, to be sure, have a resonance that stirs the soul. One hears the phrase and imagines an accompanying chorus of angels.

Now imagine you’re interviewing an executive candidate instead. The imaginary angels vanish, replaced by the ghostly visage of Don Quixote.

Last week’s column explored the questions we might ask Senators McCain and Obama if we could give them job interviews (“A conventional approach to executive interviewing,Keep the Joint Running, 9/8/2008). Let’s continue pushing the metaphor.

Candidates, be they political or business-executive, who claim they’ll stand up to the entrenched (or special) interests are either grandstanding, or … well, about the best that can be said for them is that they are victims of a false dichotomy. The proper response to entrenched interests is neither standing up nor caving in, not least because “the entrenched interests” isn’t singular, or even a small number.

If you look at political history in more than a completely superficial way, you’ll see an inescapable pattern: What those who achieved important results did with special interests was manipulate them, playing them against each other.

And if standing up to one proved necessary, as in the case of Teddy Roosevelt standing up to the trusts, the lesson is clear: Stand up to just one, and have most of the rest lined up on your side when you do or you’ll look like one of those cartoon characters who’s been run over by a steamroller.

In your company, the “entrenched interests” are such individuals and groups as: Accounting, the Marketing Department, Sales, the Board of Directors, shareholders, and whatever regulatory bodies oversee your industry.

If you were to interview an executive candidate who told you he or she would stand up to these constituencies, I trust you’d have the wisdom to choose someone less likely to destroy the company. What you want to hear is that the candidate will listen to them, understand their priorities, and find ways to move the company forward in ways that harmonize their interests — ManagementSpeak for playing them off against each other.

And another thing: Metaphorically speaking, Senators McCain and Obama are internal candidates no matter how much they claim to be “Washington outsiders.” Given the extent to which both are promising change, they had better be internal candidates. If that isn’t clear, think about interviewing an external candidate for an executive position, who says, “I’m going to shake things up, clean house, and make big changes.”

“Oh, really?” you might plausibly ask. “How do you know shaking things up, cleaning house and making big changes is what we need to do?”

Compare that to an internal candidate — one who knows How Things Get Done Around Here — who makes a similar claim. You’d have two questions for this candidate: (1) In their estimation, what most needs shaking and cleaning; and (2) how they would go about it.

“I’d stand up to the special interests,” is, for any internal candidate, a disqualifier, for this reason: Everyone is a special interest and the most successful are the most entrenched. The only way to stand up to the special interests is to stand up to everyone. That’s the opposite of leading.

Politics, whether corporate or national, is first and foremost a game. As with any game it has players, rules, objectives, strategies and tactics.

Those who play this game play it to gain advantages (not to win, since the game never ends), and they do what they do because they think it will help them.

Anyone who is serious about changing things recognizes that to do so they will have to change something about the game.

In business (and, we can wish, in government) the process is called “root cause analysis.” So with internal candidates what you want to hear is clarity about what needs the most attention, what the key leverage points are, and how that candidate would go about using them to achieve planned changes.

For example: One of the most important pieces of legislation passed in the last hundred years was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Lyndon Johnson, who got it passed, was not known for being a nice person.

What he was known for was his skill in playing special interests against each other.

He was, that is, a consummate politician. To be the president of this country, or of a corporation of any size, that’s a big part of the job description.