It’s Not What Romney Said, It’s Where He Said It

CEOs and smart business leaders know that Romney screwed up -- but not in the way you think.

Mitt Romney’s recent “47 percent” comment,  made at the Boca Raton home of Wharton grad and part-76ers owner Marc Leder, has unleashed a media storm of controversy and raised numerous questions.

Did he really intend to alienate 47 percent of the electorate?  Does he really feel that almost half of the voting public relies on the government?  Who is Marc Leder and what does he think of the Sixers’ chances this year?  More importantly, with all the opportunities available today for a rich Wharton grad, why in the hell would he invest in the Sixers?  I’m sure the public, particularly those of us from Philadelphia, will be discussing these issues over Yuenglings and cheesesteaks over the weeks to come.

But from a business perspective, it seems that the media is missing the point.  It’s not what Governor Romney said.  It’s where he said it.  That’s the lesson for us to understand.

Romney said thisThere are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax.

Fact checkers on both sides of the argument are agreeing and disagreeing which means that what he said can at the very least be defended.  And while many in the country find this statement to be insulting and still many more believe it could cost him the election, there are just as many who completely agree with what he said and still others who may now vote for him because of these comments. For me, I’m disappointed not so much by what he said, but how the message got out.  Romney has positioned himself as a man of business and a strong manager of organizations. But this is not how a good business leader communicates with his people.

If you’re a business owner or manager and you have an underlying point of view that affects your company’s direction, don’t be afraid to say it in public. In fact, make it part of your mission.  I have clients who are devout Catholics and others who are intense capitalists.  They’re not driving their religion or way of life down people’s throats, and of course they’re not allowing their beliefs to discriminate against their employees. But many of them incorporate these beliefs into their company’s direction.  They’re not afraid to say what they believe.  They don’t hide these beliefs behind closed doors or share them with just a select few.  In fact, many make these beliefs the centerpiece of their business.  “Do unto others as you have them do unto you,” said one mission statement at a company run by a Catholic friend. “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons,” a client of mine (and Woody Allen fan) included in his.

When you’re the boss, be it the CEO, the President, the VP of Sales…you’re always being watched.  Or recorded.  Or videoed.  Always.  Smart business people know this.  They don’t say things to small groups of people unless they’re prepared to say them to their entire community.  They do the reverse of what Governor Romney did.  They announce a big plan or a program (“We’re going to expand into the Southwest Region!” “We’re changing our health insurance company!” “There’s a new selection of coffee in the snackroom!”) to the community at large, through a series of emails, memos and presentations.  And then they (and their senior managers) disperse to speak about the plan in detail to smaller groups, taking questions and explaining the finer points.  Believing that almost half of the country is dependent on the government and will vote for Obama (and that this is a bad thing) is a pretty fundamental part of a candidate’s convictions and useful information for the voting public to know.  Important messages like this shouldn’t be leaked.  They should be announced as a guiding principle and then explained.

And that’s assuming that this is a fundamental part of your convictions.  If it’s just an opinion, then you keep it to yourself.  You don’t advertise it.  Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, caused a storm when it became known that he was against gay marriage.  But this was no secret, and definitely not just an opinion.  It is a very serious principle of his.  In fact, Chick-fil-A’s charitable division, WinShape Foundation, works with and supports such groups as the National Organization for Marriage, the Ruth Institute, the Pennsylvania Family Institute, Focus on the Family and Exodus International, among others, all fighting to ban marriage for same-sex couples and some advocating to “cure” homosexuality. Agree with him or not, he’s always been out of the closet with his convictions.

Which is why Governor Romney was mistaken. Any business leader will tell you that, if this is your conviction, then say it, man!  Don’t let it leak out at some meeting of billionaires in Boca.  Take a stand and make it part of your mission, your campaign, your contribution to the world.  Of course, you’re going to find when you take a stand on an issue you’re going to have people who disagree.  But that’s what being a leader is all about.  And great business leaders run their companies not solely on numbers or metrics but on their principles.  They truly believe that they are creating value and good for the world in their own unique way.  This message is communicated to their people so that everyone knows where their leader stands and what kind of person he or she is.

There’s plenty of time until the elections, and this event will ultimately fade into the background like all others.  Here in Philadelphia, I doubt the former governor’s statements will change the eventual outcome of the vote…this is definitely a Democratic stronghold.  But Democrat or Republican, business owners and managers should take away this important lesson:  have a few principles and communicate them clearly.  And for God’s sake, don’t hire Marc Leder as your financial planner!  Really?  The Sixers?