Lessons on Leading and Executing in New Territories

Lessons on Leading and Executing in New Territories

Rex Tillerson was fired by Trump. Before he became U.S. Secretary of State, he was a long time CEO of ExxonMobil. In my opinion, the CEO did not read his job requirements very well. He was hired to be the American top diplomat. Rather, he wanted to be a czar for cost-cutting [cut budget by a third] and reorganization [“We’re going to redesign” the dept]. He wanted to bring efficiency to government. Sure, bring the business experience; everything in government would be normalized.

Far from it: in business, you have market segments. In government, there is no segment. In business, you sell your $1,000 phone, $2,000 perfume, etc. You define your territory. But a politician’s market segment is ALL. Once a diplomat does not understand that, he would fail to see why bureaucracy is part of government.

When Trump team started complaining [he had traveled less than 50% of his predecessor over comparable time period], he did not take note. He was holed in Washington DC to bring process efficiency he perfected in ExxonMobil to State dept. The former has gross margin target; in the latter, it is largely immaterial.

Tillerson managed a Fortune 10 company, handled complex projects with close to $40billion in annual budget. More than 70,000 people reported to him. The efficiency in ExxonMobil which improves profit is not the most important factor expected from a top diplomat in the State dept.  Sure, efficiency is important but it is not the end. If pursuing efficiency affects the diplomacy, that efficiency is now a problem. As he spent time reorganizing and redesigning the department, Trump felt they did not have a visible diplomat.

Although the former secretary of state’s contentious relationship with the president didn’t help matters, Tillerson’s management style left a department in disarray.


Tillerson certainly seemed to think so, notwithstanding the fact that he hadn’t spent any time in diplomacy or, for that matter, government affairs. He had barely introduced himself to the career civil servants at Foggy Bottom before he concluded that the agency they staffed was a portrait of bureaucratic mismanagement. “We had very long-standing disciplined processes and decision-making, I mean highly structured, that allows you to accomplish a lot,” he told reporters in July of his time at ExxonMobil. “Those are not the characteristics of the United States government.”

Yes, as he was cutting cost and reorganizing, he forgot his main role: be the face of America in the world of diplomacy. He might be improving State Dept, but Trump was not seeing the value on diplomacy. This is a business where out of sight is out of mind. Going out there to shake hands of allies could melt tensions which saving $100 million in State Dept budget would not compensate for.

Efficiency brings profits but government is not just about margins. I learnt that lesson when a Nigerian Senator reminded me that “no person comes to Senate to preach cost-saving; we are here to spend money” [I had proposed a National Chief Information Officer to help government and MDAs (ministries, departments and agencies) consolidate purchase of software licenses to save cost from Microsoft, Oracle and the rest].

The business of public service is not that easy. If you are appointed as one [a great honor], approach it not with arrogance but humility that no external business experience can serve ALL citizens since no business has ALL citizens in their market segments. That means, you must invest efforts to understand why bureaucracy is part of government processes. Government plans for all and that makes things harder. That does not mean that we cannot improve the system. But never think those inside do not wish things are more simplified.

All Together

Trump might have fired Rex for many reasons. But he made that easier. He traveled less, was invisible to allies while holed in DC reorganizing bureaucracy. Efficiency is important but it must not be the end. As you grow in your career, find out what is KEY in that role. Focus mainly on that. That is what they would use in  assessing your performance. While other things could be added, the KEY metric must be your focus. No one would remember a Secretary of State in U.S. that saved $100 million in a year. But Americans would remember that guy that melted tensions in global territories. If improving efficiency gets in that call, you have lost the mission.

[Remember the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Focus on the main things and other little things would fall in place]


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