Why CEOs like Rex Tillerson fail in Washington

Having interviewed Tillerson and written a profile ​​​​​of the man during his tenure as secretary of state, Filkins concluded: “As far as I could gather, Tillerson doesn’t have much of an ideology, apart from efficiency.” Fair enough, but efficiency is always a matter of the means to a certain end; it is never an end in itself. Unfortunately, the latter view is common among many business professionals, for whom greater efficiency is synonymous with greater profit, the ultimate end of their labors. The same logic doesn’t apply to government agencies, however. They can always benefit from greater efficiency, but their ultimate success is never measured by profit margins. This may seem like a simple fact, but for corporate executives, like Tillerson, who have adhered to the mantra of efficiency for decades, it can lead to a confusion of ends and means when they enter government service. Such confusion threatens their ability to discharge their duties responsibly, but it can be lethal if it is supported by two assumptions that are fairly common among conservatives: The American government is hopelessly inefficient, and resolving this problem is the key to government working for a change.

These assumptions can hamstring executives entering government by convincing them that they have nothing essential to learn from their new peers who, in turn, have everything to gain from their experience. “I have sympathy with everyone with experience in the private sector who comes into a government agency and thinks ‘this is not how things worked at my old office,’” Daniel Baer, the former United States ambassador for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in the Obama administration, noted in an email. “I have less sympathy for folks who think, after a month or two, that they can simply import their prior world and impose it on their new one.”