Politics & Policy

Bad Management

Hillary Clinton in practice.

Good management looks easy when good numbers come in. But when the numbers are down — whether in sales or votes — managing begins to look like real work.

As recently as this past November, the New York Times was trumpeting Hillary Clinton’s “No-Nonsense Style” as a manager. The story hailed her as a well-organized leader who had “honed” her skills, adjusted her style after the health care reform debacle, and had generated enduring loyalty from a cadre of skilled aides operating smoothly in HillaryLand.

By March, the Times was running an article headlining her campaign’s internal “sniping,” describing Senator Clinton’s management style as “insular.”

Now, in what appear to be the twilight days of her campaign, Politico observes “Clinton leadership is a study in missteps,” and McClatchy’s David Lightman begs the obvious question: “If Clinton can’t run a campaign, can she run the White House?”

Ironically, Hillary’s campaign has been rooted in claims of managerial competence. The Clinton camp’s promotion of Hillary-as-manager is a premier case of the lady protesting too much. To the extent that her campaign has had a consistent theme, it is that she is a proven leader/manager who knows how to move the levers of power effectively. The meta-narrative is even more grandiose: The senator strides the stage as feminist icon, poised to break the ultimate glass ceiling.

For now, Hillary Clinton is still in this race, coming off a big win in Pennsylvania, due to many factors. Good management is not one of them. And while her political recalibrations are important to her electoral future, her ultimate fate depends on whether or not she can address this fundamental failure.

Hillary has spent the better portion of her life involved with political campaigns. Why has her own been so badly run?

Hierarchy Prevents Anarchy. Management is a fundamentally conservative enterprise. Liberals are constitutionally uncomfortable with hierarchy, and the results are plainly on display in the Clinton campaign.

Hillary’s preferred approach is to surround herself with contradictory opinions, throw it all in the wash, and wait for a Darwinian conclusion. No surprise then, reports coming out of HillaryLand recount rampant empire building, bureaucratic back stabbing, and political poseurs pushing in different directions.

Mark Penn lobbying for Hillary in Control; Terry McAuliffe and others lobbying for Hillary in Tears. . . . what she ended up with was political schizophrenia and strategic incoherence. Penn wants to show Hillary’s competent side and go negative. Most other influencers want to show a kinder gentler human Hillary. The strategies are diabolically diametric: Hillary attempts both and achieves neither.

A political campaign is the uber-start-up organization: usually thinly capitalized, lots of passion, a patched together team and an overworked principal. The best organizations have a clear chain of command where authority and responsibility travel along the same line on the organization chart. Ideally, decisions and assignments should move down an organization through a single, solid line visible to all.

Instead, HillaryLand has staffers reporting formally and informally to multiple decision makers with multiple agendas and strategies. Maggie Williams, Clinton’s new campaign manager, contends with Bill Clinton freelancing in South Carolina and the dearly/nearly-departed Mark Penn doing fly-bys from an alien hovercraft. And those are just the most obvious divided loyalties and mixed messages swirling around Clinton’s Ballston headquarters.

In addition to these multiple allegiances, Hillary is using two non-hierarchical types of organizational structures in the worst possible way. Instead of the brilliant synthesis of bright ideas that she believes will come from a loose process of collaboration, she gets hash.

There may be an official org chart, outlining a traditional pyramid gathering dust in a drawer somewhere. But here’s what the reality looks like:

The Wagon Wheel. Much as Bill Clinton did as president, Hillary’s senior management team resembles a hub and spoke organization where multiple decision makers have access down the spokes to Hillary at the hub. Each spoke makes different, uncoordinated decisions. Hillary’s (inadvertent) organizational structure can sometimes work in small enterprises, but not here.

The Matrix. In organizations with very talented or disciplined employees it is possible to have an individual staffer report to two different supervisors in temporary assignments in a matrix. “Matrix” refers to an organizational structure, not the movie — although to some conflicted staffers it feels like being trapped in a chart and living in a bad dream.

What’s a poor campaign staffer to do? No one seems to be in charge; no one knows what the boss is thinking. While the staff is fighting Bill Clinton over the donuts, they wonder, “Do I listen to him, or to Williams, or to Penn?”

The best indication of future performance is past performance. If Hillary is not ready to manage now, she will not be Ready on Day One.

Jack Yoest is president of Management Training of DC, LLC, and is an adjunct professor of management at the Northern Virginia Community College; Charmaine Yoest is a vice president at a Washington, DC-based non-profit and served as senior adviser to the Huckabee presidential campaign. They blog at Reasoned Audacity.

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