Management by Trickery

Management is management. High school English teachers can do that. The transition from teaching bored and distracted late adolescents to managing proudly eccentric and inappropriately inventive programmers and systems analysts, with no social skills whatsoever, was fairly easy, even if it took a few years. It was pretty much the same thing – trick them into thinking they want to do things they really don’t want to do. That didn’t require inspirational leadership and a deep understanding of human motivation. It was trickery. With those programmers and systems analysts, who loved how clever they were, the trick was to offer them an even more difficult problem than the one they had decided to solve on their own, some odd little problem no one wanted solved in the first place. All you had to do is reframe the larger mundane but complicated work that had to be done as impossible – it probably couldn’t be done, ever, even by the best minds. It was hopeless.

That was a lie, but those programmers and systems analysts would almost always drop their own idiosyncratic fixes to some minor problem that no one else cared about and dive right into the mundane work that actually had to be done. They’d work nights and weekends. They’d get it done, elegantly. They’d do the impossible. That’s who they were, or thought they were. They were heroes, and the work that had to get done was done. This wasn’t rocket science, although at the time, in the late eighties and early nineties, this was at a large aerospace corporation here in Los Angeles, so some of this did involve rocket science, indirectly.

Donald Trump never learned that trick. He may have learned no management tricks. On the anniversary of Trump’s first year in office, the New York Times’ James Stewart – not to be confused with the famous actor from “It’s a Wonderful Life” – summed up the situation this way:

Throughout his presidential campaign Donald J. Trump extolled his business acumen and management skills, and just before his inauguration he insisted the transition to his administration was going “very, very smoothly.”

Yet so chaotic was his first year in office that in January after publication of the Michael Wolff tell-all, “Fire and Fury,” the president had to publicly defend himself as a “stable genius.”

The White House suffered a staff turnover rate of 34 percent during Mr. Trump’s first year, a rate that would be unfathomable at nearly any for-profit enterprise. Even by political standards, it’s off the charts – triple that of the Obama administration, and twice that of Ronald Reagan, the previous record-holder – according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

What happened? Stewart asked around. He got answers:

“It’s much worse than I expected,” said Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University and the author of “Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t.”

“The most important thing you need as a chief executive is the ability to hire and retain talent,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “Trump said he’d get all these great people to work for him. But the rate of departures is unprecedented. Either he hired badly, or he hired well but couldn’t retain them. Either way, this reflects badly on his leadership.”

And there’s this:

As Jeffrey T. Polzer, professor of human resource management at Harvard Business School, told me last year, the time-tested approach is “to surround yourself with talented people who have the most expertise, who bring different perspectives to the issue at hand.”

“Then you foster debate and invite different points of view in order to reach a high-quality solution,” Mr. Polzer said.

He added that it “requires openness to being challenged, and some self-awareness and even humility to acknowledge that there are areas where other people know more than you do.”

Donald Trump is not known for self-awareness and humility; he scoffs at such things, so you get this:

Mr. Trump does appear to solicit and consider the opinions of others, but they are as likely to be random guests at Mar-a-Lago, or television pundits, as they are experts in the field, or even his own appointees.

“The lack of attention to data drives me nuts,” Mr. Pfeffer said. Mr. Trump, he said, “seems to have no interest in science, social science or data,” citing White House initiatives to repeal Obamacare and to rescue the coal industry as glaring examples.

But that’s not all:

Others pointed to his threats to pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement with little understanding of the consequences for American businesses and farmers, and his decision to abandon the Paris climate accord despite scant familiarity with the science of climate change.

“Nothing about the chaos and turnover in the White House surprises me,” said Charles M. Elson, a professor and director of the John L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

“He hasn’t changed in 30 years,” Mr. Elson added. “He isn’t bound by any traditional norms of management.”

He wouldn’t be:

Mr. Elson said Mr. Trump acted more like the typical entrepreneur than an experienced manager. “A problem with entrepreneurs is that people get tired of it and they move on,” he said. “People just get worn out. At some point you need a real manager. A lot of entrepreneurs sell their businesses when they reach a certain size and they realize they can’t manage them.”

Entrepreneurs are like that. They have big ideas and hire other people to implement them, to manage the larger mundane but complicated work of actually getting things done. Think of Elon Musk and his wonderful Tesla electric cars. Musk simply cannot manage the mundane but complicated work of actual assembly-line production. Work keeps stopping – parts shortages. The first version of his latest model has parts that keep breaking. People quit. It’s a mess, but Donald Trump’s real estate empire is the same. He has big ideas. Other people implement them. Now other people build his big buildings. His name goes on them, a licensing arrangement that makes him richer and richer. His career seems to have been a matter of having big ideas, and moving on to other big ideas. He makes yet another “fantastic deal” and moves on. Other people manage things. He never was a manager:

“I don’t think Trump thinks much about management philosophy,” Mr. Pfeffer said. “He ran for president as a lark, and look at him now. For him it’s all upside.”

He is president. That’s the upside. He gets his management ideas elsewhere. Olivia Nuzzi reports on that:

The call to the White House comes after ten o’clock most weeknights, when Hannity is over. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Sean Hannity broadcasts live at 9 p.m. on Fox News, usually from Studio J in midtown, where the network is headquartered, but sometimes from a remote studio on Long Island, where he was raised and now lives.

All White House phone numbers begin with the same six digits: 202-456. Hannity calls the White House switchboard – a number listed publicly – and reaches an operator. The operator refers to a list of cleared callers, a few dozen friends and family members outside the administration who may contact President Donald Trump through this official channel – among them his adult sons, Eric and Don Jr.; private-equity billionaire Stephen Schwarzman, media billionaire Rupert Murdoch, real-estate billionaire Tom Barrack, Patriots owner and also-billionaire Robert Kraft – and Hannity.

The operator then dials the president, who leaves the Oval Office around 7 p.m. and who, by this point in the evening, is almost always by himself on the third floor of the executive residence (the First Lady reportedly sleeps in a separate bedroom). He tells the operator to put Hannity through.

Their chats begin casually, with how-are-yous and what’s-going-ons. On some days, they speak multiple times, with one calling the other to inform him of the latest developments. White House staffers are aware that the calls happen, thanks to the president entering a room and announcing, “I just hung up with Hannity,” or referring to what Hannity said during their conversations, or even ringing Hannity up from his desk in their presence.

Nuzzi sees this as a matter of Trump ceding the management of the country to Hannity:

More than most politicians, Trump abides by the Groucho Marx law of fraternization. He inherently distrusts anyone who chooses to work for him, seeking outside affirmation as often as possible from as vast and varied a group as he can muster – but Hannity is at the center. “Generally, the feeling is that Sean is the leader of the outside kitchen cabinet,” one White House official said, echoing other staffers… Unlike on Fox and Friends, where Trump learns new (frequently incorrect) information, Hannity acts to transform Trump’s pervasive ambivalence into resolve by convincing him what he’s already decided he believes and what he’s decided to do is correct.

Hannity tells Trump how to manage things. Someone has to tell Trump how to manage things. Without Hannity, Trump is at a loss, and David Atkins sees what that means:

Donald Trump cannot truly be said to have a managerial style. So far as we can tell, his ethos seems to be to hire vicious and aggressive people whose number-one qualification is absolute loyalty to him, without regard to how well they might work together as a team or how competent they might be in absolute terms. The goal of any organization Trump is a part of is simply to give Trump more access to money, women and fame. Trump does not return loyalty given to him.

Insofar as he does have a management principle, it is to set people against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere of ruthless competition for resources and attention – a combination of Ayn Rand and Lord of the Flies.

Atkins is not impressed:

That strategy has its advantages and drawbacks in the private sector, but it’s particularly toxic in a public-facing organization ostensibly serving the common good. When you set everyone against each other you can create some innovation and internal efficiency at the expense of cohesion and inter-departmental synergy. Usually the drawbacks outweigh the advantages even in the business world. In the public sector it is disastrous. The failure to understand the difference between management designed to drive maximum profit, and management designed to effectively steer the ship of state is why it’s a bad idea to elect people who want to run the government like a business.

There’s also that problem of setting people against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere of ruthless competition, because that leads to nonsense:

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders lambasted the communications team Friday over leaking details of a White House staffer’s reported mockery of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s health during an internal meeting earlier this week.

According to the news website Axios, Sanders and other senior members of the press team were not as much bothered by the substance of the staffer’s remarks about McCain than the fact that they had been leaked to the press.

“I am sure this conversation is going to leak, too,” a visibly upset and furious Sanders told attendees during Friday’s meeting, Axios reported, citing five staffers who were in the room. “And that’s just disgusting.”

At the center of the debacle were remarks from Kelly Sadler, a special assistant in the White House, who reportedly took issue with McCain’s opposition to Gina Haspel, the Trump administration’s nominee for CIA director. Sadler allegedly dismissed the lawmaker’s concerns earlier this week, saying “he’s dying, anyway.”

It seems the comment about McCain wasn’t disgusting. Nothing was denied and nothing was done about that, but the leaks, from five different people at the meeting, are disgusting, and Jonathan Swan reports this:

The White House communications and press team has been beset by leaks. This last one appears to have crossed a line, and several people in the room on Friday told me they now walk into meetings knowing they can’t trust their own colleagues. In big meetings, they feel inclined, now, to keep their mouths shut.

Atkins adds this:

It is notable how stark this contrast is with the relatively leak-free Mueller probe, whose team of professionals and public servants have troves of explosive information about the President unknown to the press but keep it all close to the vest. Trump isn’t just a disaster on a policy level and as a national leader. His managerial incompetence is manifest at even the smallest levels.

That’s okay, because Spencer Ackerman notes that Trump now has an enforcer:

A former National Security Council official now working for Attorney General Jeff Sessions explored ways to surreptitiously monitor the communications of White House staff for leaks or perceived political disloyalty to Donald Trump, according to three former Trump NSC officials familiar with the effort.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, whom former national security adviser Michael Flynn brought onto the NSC as senior director for intelligence, sought technical solutions in early 2017 for collecting and analyzing phone and other data on White House colleagues for interactions with reporters. He portrayed his desired leak hunt as an “insider threat” detection effort, according to the ex-officials. Those who heard of it presumed it would focus on NSC staffers held over from the Obama administration.

It is unknown whether Cohen-Watnick’s efforts actually resulted in any monitoring program. The former officials noted the overwhelming technical and legal hurdles to doing so. One called it “wholly inappropriate” for Cohen-Watnick, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, to do anything of the sort, considering it a blatant attempt at intimidating his colleagues.

So there may be no monitoring program, yet, but there could be one soon, unless there already is one. No one knows. Everyone will now keep their mouths shut, maybe, or maybe not – but even halfway competent managers don’t need an enforcer. They need to trick their employees into thinking they’re heroes, so the work that needs to get done gets done. This is just a dirty trick.

And there’s still the matter of who’s in charge here, as Jonathan Swan also reports this:

The Trump team is bitterly divided over what’s happening with China. Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, want a deal that has China buying billions in U.S. products in exchange for not facing retaliations on alleged theft of intellectual property. But while hardliners Peter Navarro and Bob Lighthizer have been publicly silent, people familiar with their thinking say that they believe it would betray Trump’s economic agenda, missing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to force China to change its industrial practices.

What does Trump think? Sean Hannity hasn’t told him yet, so everyone is freelancing:

Three sources outside the White House who are familiar with the Trump officials’ recent Beijing trip told me Mnuchin ran his own meetings with the Chinese on the last day of the trip, mostly keeping the rest of the U.S. team in a holding room.

There has been some concern within the administration that Mnuchin is trying to run these negotiations unilaterally. “Mnuchin marginalized the team and positioned himself as the guy,” a source familiar with the talks told me.

An administration source familiar with the China meetings pushed back hard against this, saying it’s a narrative being “pushed by interested parties both inside and outside” of the administration. He said the President is the one in charge of the deal and Mnuchin’s one-on-one talks with Liu He were brief, “completely appropriate,” and “highly choreographed,” adhering to protocol.

“Everybody who knows what’s actually happening knows that this is the President’s decision to make,” the official said. “There’s going to be no deal that the President doesn’t sign off on.”

But no one knows what that deal might be. Even if halfway competent managers “set the direction” of their organization, Donald Trump isn’t saying. Donald Trump isn’t a manager at all, but it doesn’t matter:

“Whatever deal they might make will be temporary,” says Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute, who is well-sourced in Beijing.

Everything is temporary now that’s there’s no direction, and the New York Times’ Paul Mozur and Raymond Zhong report this:

As China and the United States go toe-to-toe on trade and maneuver ahead of a historic North Korea meeting next month, an unlikely obstacle has emerged: a second-tier Chinese electronics maker, ZTE.

The company said last week that it had halted “major operating activities” after being penalized by the United States Department of Commerce. On Sunday morning, President Trump surprised many in Washington when he indicated a willingness to rethink the punishment. He also appeared to walk back from brinkmanship that has threatened the United States’ trade talks with China.

In a tweet, Mr. Trump said he was working with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to prevent the collapse of the company, which employs 75,000 people.

“Too many jobs in China lost,” Mr. Trump wrote. “Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”

Now everyone is confused:

The overture appeared to be off-key for an administration that has been reliably strident on what it has called unfair Chinese trade practices. Mr. Trump’s concern in his tweet about Chinese jobs – which echoed Beijing’s talking point on the issue – also runs counter to his vows to restore American jobs lost to China.

But this could be something at play here too:

By saying the United States would work to bring ZTE back to life, Mr. Trump took pressure off the American-Chinese relationship at a crucial moment. Mr. Trump’s meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, has been scheduled for next month and will hinge on China, which has fashioned itself as an intermediary with Mr. Kim.

That’s being charitable:

Pardoning a company that failed to punish employees who violated American trade controls against Iran and North Korea would set a difficult precedent for the United States… The prospective shutdown of ZTE has been seen as major leverage in continuing trade discussions between China and the United States over Chinese trade practices. If Mr. Trump was announcing a huge concession with his tweet, it was without any indication of what he might have gotten in return.

There is that, and this:

The about-face left many scratching their heads. Mr. Trump was criticized by members of Congress for his efforts to protect ZTE. “You should care more about national security than Chinese jobs,” Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat of California, said in a tweet. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, tweeted, “How about helping some American companies first?”

“Given his pressure on Beijing on trade, I don’t understand his concern for Chinese jobs” in the tweet, said Adam Segal, a technology and security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. It “goes against the steady stream of security warnings about ZTE,” he added.

Last month the Commerce Department banned shipments of American technology to ZTE for seven years, saying that the company broke sanctions and then lied about carrying out the punishment. The department said on Sunday that it had no comment.

Of course they had no comment:

The president’s tweet underscored his willingness to try to hammer out deals by offering unconventional or unrelated concessions that are ordinarily left to government negotiators working in more structured processes. But presidential intervention to rescue the Chinese company could also be seen as undercutting the Commerce Department’s authority to enforce trade controls. It might, therefore, diminish the future effectiveness of such controls when applied to other companies.

Even halfway competent managers “set the direction” for their organization. Donald Trump isn’t even halfway competent at management, and then there’s this guy:

Larry Kudlow thinks he can steer Donald Trump’s chaotic White House away from economic disaster by being the nicest guy in the West Wing.

Unlike Gary Cohn, his hard-charging predecessor at the helm of the National Economic Council, Kudlow doesn’t yell. He doesn’t have a reputation for knifing policy opponents in the press or badmouthing them to colleagues, as do many aides in the fractious administration.

“I have opinions, which I will share with the president,” Kudlow, an avowed free-trade supporter in a mostly protectionist White House, said in an interview Friday in his office on the second floor of the West Wing. “But I don’t keep people out of meetings. It’s not my style. So, I guess you might say I’m lower-keyed. I’m quite respectful of disagreements.”

Instead, he’s trying to avoid the collapse of the North American Free Trade Agreement and a bitter trade war with China – both of which could scramble the world’s economic power map – by seeking consensus with colleagues who are inclined to impose stricter trade barriers, staying close to his boss and wooing members of Congress.

Even Kudlow doesn’t know if it will work.

Kudlow may be worried about Sean Hannity. Hannity tells Trump how to manage things. Someone has to tell Trump how to manage things. That will not be Larry Kudlow, the nicest guy in the West Wing. Donald Trump’s sole management principle is to set people against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere of ruthless competition, and then change his mind on this or that and walk away. That’s his one management trick, but that’s not management at all. In fact, no one is managing the government at the moment. That’s not happened before.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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