The Rise of the Political Manager

The late 1970s and early 1980s have been a political watershed for large firms. On the surface, many companies established political action committees, most upgraded their public affairs programs, and nearly all increased their contribution budgets. Still, a less visible, but equally significant, activity is taking place below the surface: companies are looking for ways to develop the political consciousness of their own managers. Here the goal is not to encourage managers to run for public office or to enter political life as individuals; rather, it is to make them better able to understand and communicate the company’s political position as part of their regular management functions.

Many firms therefore conclude that a politically sensitive management can be just as important to a company’s political welfare as the more explicit programs of the public affairs office and the corporate political action committee. Consequently, these firms are initiating a range of programs in management political development. The reasoning is if large numbers of the firm’s middle and senior managers can be trained to better communicate with public officials, opinion shapers, and the public at large, the company will have a far broader impact on the political arena than if the public affairs staff were left to do it alone.

Certainly not all companies view their managers as an untapped political resource. Some still subscribe to what Irving Shapiro, who was then chief executive of Du Pont, identified as the traditional rules of management conduct: “Stick to business, stay out of trouble, join the right clubs, and don’t talk to reporters.”1 But many companies have changed the rules, thereby stressing outreach over introversion.

What Is Management Political Development?

Management political development means developing and improving a two-way communication flow between government and business. The desired result is to produce politically aware managers who are: (1) better equipped to understand the legislative process and key players in the nation’s and states’ capitals; (2) more cognizant of how public opinion is shaped and how it can affect the firm; (3) more appreciative of the power of environmental, labor, consumer, and other interest groups; and (4) more proficient in getting their company’s views across to public officials, the media, and opposing interest groups.

Although public relations and corporate communications offices have always specialized in political skills, what makes this concept innovative is that these skills are now being transferred to managers outside the specialized staffs.

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1. I. Shapiro, "Business and the Public Policy Process" (Boston, MA: Harvard University Symposium on Business and Government, May 9, 1979). 2. R.E. Beck, "The Liberal Arts Major in Bell System Management" (Basic Human Resources Research Group, American Telephone and Telegraph Company, 1981). 3. D. Winter, D. McClelland, and A. Stewart, A New Case for the Liberal Arts (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1981). 4. R.B. Smith, "Why Business Needs the Liberal Arts" (Address to the Commercial Club of Chicago. Reprinted by the Council for Financial Aid to Education, New York). 5. The Business Roundtable's recommendations appear in F.W. Steckmest, Corporate Performance; The Key to Public Trust (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1982).

6. S. Lusterman, Managerial Competence: The Public Affairs Aspect (New York: The Conference Board, 1981).

A number of other approaches to broadening managerial political capacities are described in P.S. McGrath, Developing Employee Political Awareness (New York: The Conference Board, 1980).

7. Descriptions of the three programs are drawn from interviews with company managers who operate each program and with others familiar with the courses, and from the author's participation in the Shell program, once as an invited faculty participant and once as a comoderator for the seminar. 8. D.G. Moore, Politics and the Corporate Chief Executive (New York: The Conference Board, 1980). 9. R.G. Shaeffer, Top-Management Staffing Challenges: CEOs Describe Their Needs (New York: The Conference Board, 1982).

10. This example is drawn from parallel interviews that I conducted with managing directors of a number of large British firms. For further information on the interviews and other data sources, see:

M. Useem, "Classwide Rationality in the Politics of Managers and Directors of Large Corporations in the United States and Great Britain," Administrative Science Quarterly 27 (1982): 199-226;

M. Useem, The Inner Circle: Large Corporations and the Rise of Business Political Activity in the U.S. and U.K. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).

11. Steckmest (1982). 12. Ibid. 13. Lusterman (1981). 14. Ibid.

15. Although the line separating a firm's senior managers from others is imprecise, for purposes of analysis we adopted a widely used definition of top management as the seniormost six to ten managers of the firm. A Conference Board survey of the chief executives of 432 large companies in 1981, for instance, reports that "top management" is generally considered to include the highest ranking six to ten executives, with a median near eight. See R.G. Shaeffer and A.R. Janger, Who Is Top Management? (New York: The Conference Board, 1982).

We also focused on the top eight managers associated with each of the 212 corporations (in some cases only six or seven could be identified). Information on the managers' public affairs activities is drawn from reference and biographical directories published by Marquis, Standard & Poor's, Moody's, Dun and Bradstreet, Taft Corporation, and the U.S. Government, and membership lists made available by The Business Roundtable, Business Council, Committee for Economic Development, and Council on Foreign Relations. This information is assembled primarily for the period from 1975 to 1980. Details on information sources and sampling procedure for selecting the 212 corporations can be found in Useem (1984).

16. H. Mintzberg, "The Manager's Job: Folklore and Fact," Harvard Business Review, July-August 1975, pp. 49-61. 17. J.E. Post, E.A. Murray, Jr., R.B. Dickie, and J.F. Mahon, "Managing Public Affairs: The Public Affairs Function," California Management Review, Fall 1983, pp. 135-150. 18. "How Business Is Getting Through to Washington," Business Week, 4 October 1982, p. 16. 19. F.W. Steckmest, "Career Development for the Public Policy Dimension of Executive Performance," Public Affairs Review (1981): 71-87.