What Politicians Could Learn from Business About Getting Back to Business

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Left. Right. And nothing in between. When it comes to discerning today’s big issues, invariably they are seen through the prism of politics.

Liberals call the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl a fine humanitarian gesture. Conservatives all but call it another terrorist act waiting to happen. The left calls Keystone an environmental disaster if it’s allowed to open; the right, a jobs travesty if it does not.

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Take an issue, any issue, and it comes down either way, but rarely both ways, or even a little of both ways. Left or right. Right or wrong. Such is the state of the mainstream media today, and much of society itself today, that we can’t step back and be more pragmatic. Those who try tend to get badly burned. Just look at Congressman Paul Ryan, who favors immigration reform now, and is getting heckled by both sides now. Republicans say he’s for amnesty and Democrats say he’s for tight-fisted reform that won’t help anybody.

If only more political types took their cues from business types. Talk about a pragmatic bunch. If there’s any group of folks who try to reach across the aisle, it’s likely chief executives and investment manager types who have no other choice but to reach across the aisle. They do so not because they necessarily want to, but because they have to. They have to get something done. They don’t have the luxury of tabling an issue.

That’s not to say business bosses aren’t generally conservative. Most are. But most also are pragmatic enough to know they can’t and won’t get everything they want, so it’s not their way or the highway. They have shareholders to answer to and customers who’ll more than happily let them know a thing or two.

It is in that light of getting things done that I think we all could learn from how businesses get things done. To be sure, most business types aren’t keen on the new healthcare law. It’s expensive, it’s cumbersome, and for many of them, it’s an ever-changing regulatory nightmare. But it’s also the law, and chief executives tend to have a healthy respect for the law, and the requirements that come with that law. Many will, and have, pled for time and carve-outs. But their goal is to work it out. They’ll offer ideas in White House meetings, even criticisms in Washington forums. But when push comes to shove, company bosses rarely just tell Washington to shove it. Because they can’t.

They have to keep moving the ball, they have to keep adjusting, and fine-tuning – not life as they want it to be, but life as it is. They’re such a pragmatic bunch that even in the face of one of the weakest economic recoveries on record, they chose to hunker down and adjust. They cut spending and overhead, and produced just as stunningly, one of the strongest collective corporate turnarounds on record. I’m sure a lot of these chief executives would tell you they weren’t big fans of the circumstances that led to this harsh cost-cutting – many chafed at the big bank rescues and the countless rescues that would follow. But they knew then what they know implicitly now – that “them there’s the breaks.” Life is never as we wish it, just what we do with it.

I’m not so naïve to think that businesses wholeheartedly endorse paying higher taxes, but when the dust settles and they are, they do. Simple as that. They either find a way of passing along those higher costs of business, or cutting the underlying costs in their business, or maybe a little of both. But they do it, and fast. None of this means corporations don’t argue, and quite strongly, against paying more taxes, and footing more of a myriad of other social bills. They always have, and always will be looking for their own breaks, and their own exemptions, just as partners in a proposed corporate merger seek out advantages. It’s human nature to exploit advantages, but businesses know as well that deals and deal-making can be constructed to everyone’s advantage. Not exactly, not evenly, not consistently, but with collective effort, usually.

Remember it was business that called for private-market solutions to help make the healthcare law work. Remember it was business that called for a middle ground on opening Keystone, but being extra vigilant about keeping the environment safe. Remember it was business that suggested we get tough with Russia on the Ukraine, but not so tough we cut off our corporate noses to spite our face. And remember it was business that first called for immigration reform, if for no other reason than to keep the available pool of good talent out there back here.

To be sure, business’s interests were based on their interests, but they were also based on shared interests. AOL and Google blasting the NSA over privacy invasions didn’t go so far as to call for putting the NSA out of business – just conducting that business more humanely and sanely. The fact that both companies had their own data-collecting reputation on the line might have had something to do with this approach, but again, for the sake of their business, they were looking for a better approach that could satisfy all parties’ needs.

I like to think of the business community as less driven by politics, and more driven by profit. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, there’s a remarkable clarity and consistency that comes with that. Such thinking gets beyond “red” and “blue,” and focuses on just “green” – what are the money-making possibilities here? To that end, businesses are driven to closure on issues that they know if open too long, never allow deals to be closed, ever.

Ronald Reagan famously said he’d rather get half a loaf than none. But he carried that argument even further when he added, “my 80% friend is not my 20% enemy.”

He got it. Liberals and Conservatives would be wise, in business and politics, never to forget it.

What do you think?

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