Still, competence counts. Sometimes an outsider can’t, or won’t, leverage his or her out-of-the-box skills while assembling enough in-house expertise to fix the broken parts. In 2000, Robert Nardelli left GE, where he had lost a fight to succeed Jack Welch, and took over at Home Depot, despite having no significant retail experience. Instead of becoming a savior, in 2009 he made Portfolio magazine’s list of the “Worst American CEOs of All Time” (he stepped down at Home Depot in 2007). Nardelli was criticized for not respecting Home Depot’s culture—for example, the way it retained salespeople who knew a lot about fixing things—or what anyone but he himself had to offer. In a very different field of endeavor, Michael Jordan discovered he couldn’t just change out of his basketball uniform and play a serious game of baseball.
Even in politics, a promise of change—magic for Barack Obama in 2008—is often not enough to inspire voters. This election cycle saw the failure of three women, all Republicans, who hoped to turn business success into political power: Meg Whitman, the former CEO of eBay, who ran for governor in California; Carly Fiorina, who had been CEO of Hewlett-Packard and aimed for the Senate, also in California (and who was on that Portfolio list with Nardelli); and Linda McMahon, who built up World Wrestling Entertainment and ran for the Senate in Connecticut. In those cases, it may have been the candidates’ inexperience in running for office—rather than in governing—that became the problem. “They ran bad campaigns,” says Rebecca Traister, author of Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Election That Changed Everything for American Women. In billionaire Whitman’s case, it was made all the worse by dramatic overspending (she put $144 million of her own money into the campaign) and what Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, called “personal missteps” (one involving a housekeeper who was an undocumented worker). Pink thinks Whitman should have investigated the ways in which politics and business are not alike, and taken the time to figure out who the “stakeholders” were. “My guess is that Meg Whitman did less due diligence in her own transition than she would have allowed in eBay making an acquisition,” he says.
Sometimes no one notices that inexperience is a problem until something goes wrong. When Michael Brown was appointed to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2003, few people registered that the most elevated title on his résumé was head of the International Arabian Horse Association. Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and a lot of people noticed. Brown is best remembered as a paragon of obliviousness, the hapless recipient of George W. Bush’s now-legendary compliment, “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie.” As an agency head, Brown seemed not to even know what needed to happen when disaster struck, much less be able to make it happen. FEMA turned away relief trucks and planes sent to evacuate people, and Brown himself became overwhelmed. (“Can I quit now?” he e-mailed a colleague the day of the storm.) Three days in, he told Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News that he didn’t realize there were refugees in the New Orleans Convention Center, even though there had been live television broadcasts from the scene for some time.