Mitt Romney’s Kodak moment

By Jack and Suzy Welch
February 3, 2012

If there’s one concept we preach that everyone seems to agree on it’s the following: You have to face reality the way it is, not the way you want it to be.

True, right?

So why is it that so many organizations do the exact opposite? Why do they think technology will evolve at a manageable pace or that a competitor’s products will never be able to capture the hearts of their customers? Why do they say things like, “Prices will hold because costs are as rock-bottom as they’ll ever be,” or buy into notions like, “We can’t go any faster and maintain our quality”?

Such questions are rhetorical, of course. People don’t face reality the way it is because, well, because they’re people. Change – especially change that will require upending “how things are done around here” – can make us cranky, dismissive, mocking or all of the above.

And so it is that we can have a company like Kodak, which once upon a time held a mighty 90 percent market share, declare bankruptcy. Or one like Borders, the dearly departed bookseller, which missed every game-changing trend that came at it. Research In Motion, one of the fastest-growing companies in the world on its way up, threatens to become another case of a business that ends its glorious run in the disarray of reality-denial – even though its ubiquitous BlackBerry helped change the way we all work.

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove was right: When it comes to competition, as he put it in his 1999 book, “Only the paranoid survive.”

So business leaders, take heed. Figure out what’s going to blow you apart before the competition does. Stare into the future – and be afraid. Be very afraid. And if you can’t look deeply into the dark side, which some people just can’t, at least make it a point to surround yourself with one or two smart, snarky lieutenants who persistently assail your optimism with doomsday scenarios.

Hello, Mitt Romney, are you listening?

Look, it’s hardly a secret that we support former Governor Romney. He is, in our view, the most qualified and electable Republican candidate left in the race.

But we‘re concerned that Romney is not facing reality the way it is – which is that his religion is going to become a major issue. In fact, we can imagine that come the general election, Romney’s taxes and his years at Bain will be background noise and the foreground roar will be all about Mormonism.

And why wouldn’t it be? His religion was an issue last time Romney ran for national office, and America’s large bloc of vocal Evangelical Christians, which any Republican candidate will need to win the White House, has clearly signaled once again that Mormonism is an area of deep concern. And yet, even with that evident reality, it appears this is Romney’s Kodak Moment. He’s hoping and waiting.

Hoping and waiting is not a winning strategy.

Which is why Romney’s campaign, like any organization staring down certain adversity, must rapidly shore up its response and then – as disagreeable as it may feel – go on the offense. Imagine, for example, if Kodak had faced up to the onslaught of digital photography with a creative-destruction mindset, or what if Borders had embraced the possibility that e-books weren’t going away? We probably wouldn’t be mentioning them here as cautionary tales.

To escape the same fate, Romney needs to get ahead of the Mormon issue now, answering Evangelical concerns before they start to snowball, the way these things do. And despite the successful example of John F. Kennedy taking on anti-Catholic opposition in 1960 with one great speech, Romney cannot let himself think all he needs is a single “putting it to bed” foray, heavy on the separation of church and state rhetoric. Times have changed; the media have changed. Today, people talk and talk and talk about controversial issues – and so must he.

What can Romney say? Well, for starters, he can educate people about the central tenets of his faith, which remain something of a black box for many Americans. But more important, he must bridge the trust gap his Mormonism creates by making it explicit to voters that he is neither pawn nor theocrat, as he proved during his governorship of Massachusetts. Maybe Romney thinks this point is so obvious it doesn’t bear stating. It does. Finally, as part of a proactive, face-reality offensive, Romney might make it a priority on the campaign trail to identify and celebrate the values all people of faith share, Mormons included. Because if he doesn’t, chances are his opponents will make sure to exploit the differences.

But it’s not for us to say exactly how Romney tackles this matter. All we know is that if he doesn’t, it’s not going to go away.

Maybe we’re being paranoid.

Then again, these days everyone has to be.

Jack Welch was the CEO of General Electric for 21 years and is the founder of the Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University. Suzy Welch is an author, speaker and the former Editor of the Harvard Business Review.

PHOTO: U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney shakes hands with supporters after speaking at his Florida primary night rally in Tampa, Florida, January 31, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Carlson

20 comments

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Interesting article. I’m a registered republican who will be voting for Obama the second time this coming election. I live in Oklahoma, which is an understatement to call it a christian conservative state. I only qualify that to make my next point…
There is nothing Romney can say or do short of renouncing his religion and accepting the evangelical incarnation of Jesus to win over the midwestern evangelical Christians. While I myself am a devout atheist, having suffered the misfortune of being born and raised in a backward state like Oklahoma…nay..under the shadow of Oral Roberts University no less, I have a certain incite into the minds of midwestern conservative-evangelical christian thinking (in that if you live near them you find out that they are outspoken and forthright about it). You must realize that most midwestern christians are woefully under-educated (due to the collapsing education systems across the midwest-trust me I was in them) and willfully ignorant to other points of view- especially when it comes to religious beliefs. And to go one step further, they are also paranoid (as you put it) that any other religion could pose a threat to their own ideals that this is and will always be a christian nation…and Mormonism is, at least in their christian conservative view, not a part of their family.
So when in your paragraph you suggest that Romney must educate people about the central tenets of his faith..his words will fall on not just def ears, but defiant ears.
Of course, I’m not voting for Romney but it has nothing to do with his wacky religion or any other wacky religion but more so with his asinine fiscal policies which, in my view are shared by many willfully ignorant and under-educated midwestern Christians.
Facing reality is not something people who believe in a God of any kind are prepared for.

Posted by StatusQu0 | Report as abusive

“Imagine, for example, if Kodak had faced up to the onslaught of digital photography with a creative-destruction mindset, or what if Borders had embraced the possibility that e-books weren’t going away? We probably wouldn’t be mentioning them here as cautionary tales.”

Faced up to? With a mindset? Too vague to be prescriptive, imo.

How about this, tie the business example and the political situation together in a way that the audience could mimic, not just acknowledge the similarity?

Amazon spent $X millions over Y years developing Kindle. Borders had $X millions from cash flow that they spent on building more brick & mortar stores (over that same time period), instead of hiring 3 smart people and challenging them to “Build a digital reader (for us) that will replace our entire business and all our competitors. Here’s $X millions. Hire who you need. Partner with anybody you want. We won’t be another Xerox/PARC failure story. And hurry, before someone else gets ahead of us on this ‘digital thing.’”

Similarly, Romney could fill rooms with Republicans who think they would never vote for him in a million years, and discuss why not. Not a professional focus group facilitator or political operative. Him, in the flesh. Don’t guess at what should be in a “Mormon Speech” or in the “Mormon Strategy” or what the “Bain Solution” might be. Only the voters can tell him that, but only if he puts people in rooms to discuss it with him.

Not just a poll. Borders couldn’t have gotten any advice about a digital reader device by polling people who had never heard of one (i.e. pre-kindle) to get any valuable information. Border would’ve had to just do it. They didn’t.

Romney must just do it. Reach outside the bubble and stop exclusively giving rally speeches to people ready to cheer no matter what is said. That may appear to be “campaigning,” but then again, Borders thought they were “growing the business” by buying more bricks and mortar the years they should’ve been replacing themselves from the inside.

That’s my vision of Romney’s Borders Moment.
@DanFarfan

Posted by DanFarfan | Report as abusive

Running for president is about the Banksters deciding who is going to give them their corporate welfare, keeping the FED their scam, and putting the USA under military dictatorship, ie. Petraeus as dictator in Chief. One thing the Banksters do is find out those things candidates can’t have exposed and use this as a ring in the nose to lead he/she around. Romney probably knows what they know he cannot face and may be in the race to throw it to Obama. Then again JEB may raise his head at Tampa. Its hard for me to imagine the Banksters finding anyone who would do more for their agenda than Obama, unless possibly JEB. Romney may not be facing his Mormon religion issues because if he does successfully it may take him to those issues he cannot face.

Posted by randy123 | Report as abusive

I have always admired Jack Welch’s business thought. However, being CEO of a great company doesn’t give him any particular qualifications as a political scientist or thinker. I don’t see how his thoughts are any more relevant that the man-in-the-street’s. I wish he would stick to what he know best.

This was a problem with his BusinessWeek column as well. It started off with business talk, but then he veered into political commentary.

Posted by GoCardinal | Report as abusive

> “What can Romney say? Well, for starters, he can educate people about the central tenets of his faith, which remain something of a black box for many Americans.”

Romney has already said quite plainly that he’s not running for “Theologian in Chief”. He’s not going to use his political position as a platform for promoting his faith. I therefore doubt he will explain any tenets of his faith on the campaign trail, except those tenets that are shared by pretty much all of humanity: the Ten Commandments for example. The sorts of things that bring us together, regardless of faith.

For anyone wondering what Mormons believe, there are several ways to find out:
http://www.mormon.org/
http://www.lds.org/
Ask Mormon missionaries to pay a visit and explain their basic beliefs (they do this free of charge, while working as volunteers). You can chat online and request visits through the websites mentioned above. Full-time Mormon missionaries generally avoid discussing politics, in line with the Church’s strict policy of political neutrality; so if you just want to work out how Romney’s faith might be influencing his politics, the best people to ask will be regular members of the “Mormon” church – your neighbours and workmates.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

> “Romney might make it a priority on the campaign trail to identify and celebrate the values all people of faith share, Mormons included.”

This is an excellent suggestion. Anyone in the Romney camp listening?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

“Evangelical Christians” that are actually Bible reading Christians won’t fall for common beliefs. JFK was different because Catholics and Protestants both had Jesus as the central figure to their faith. Mormons have Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon central to their faith and a skewed form of the Biblical Jesus as a secondary part of it. He may not be a theocrat but the fact that he’s followed Morman teachings that ignore Biblical teachings will not simply be an obstacle that he can leap by saying he’s not a pawn of his religion.

Posted by topabbott | Report as abusive

I’m an Obama Democrat, but appreciate your op-ed piece – thank you. We do, indeed, need to educate ourselves and be educated about his religion, as well as about the office of the presidency and its limits, about how our government works, how it’s evolved, and our participation in it; hopefully this will happen before we all have our Kodak moment… Wouldn’t it be great if we could have real debates between Mr. Romney and President Obama instead of name calling, facile but empty categorizing, and issue muddling?

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive

That’s a good ploy there Neutron Jack! Dangle that religion out there, use it to deflect. It’s politically incorrect to attack a man on his religious beliefs. Just like when WS crashed. “Look at the bonuses! Aren’t they terrible” mean while they squelched most regulations and papered over the real problem.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

The religion argument is pure bigoted bunk.

I’d say his Kodak moments … the things that will leave an indelible impression worth a lot of buzz: his lines “I don’t care about …. people”, “I like to be able to fire people …”, “There’s nothing wrong [un-American] with that [Swiss Account] … a trustee that manages my blind trust”

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

Another Kodak moment for Romney”, photo of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City:
http://www.efn.org/~hkrieger/xc196.jpg

From the series, “Churches ad hoc”

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive

Great article. My question to Mr Welch -”what were the Board of Directors, some whom are independent non executive, doing?”
Nay sayers and doubters are never welcome in almost all organisations – even the very well known ones; what more in political archetype set-ups where the candidate is preaching only to the converted.
The reality that candidate Romney is not hearing and seeing is his insincerity to the people that matters.

Posted by rissey | Report as abusive

Jack, I disagree, Rom should keep doing what he is doing. The media coverage and money is doing just fine. Ron Paul is the greatest threat to him. If he truely wants to win he should speak to the liberal conservatives. Really, the conservatives. There are a lot of us Ross Perot types out there willing to throw away a vote. BTW, after that election, the investment dollars into our Cleveland Lighting Facility drasticly declined, work went to Mexico then Hungary then Asia. We made bricks without straw so laws were past to destroy the incandescent industry. Funny how politics works. Washington once bought 160 gals. of booze for under 400 voters! That always works.

Posted by dr.bob | Report as abusive

Mr Welch, Kodak was the first to invest in researching and developing of digital photography. In my opinion, what leaded Kodak to its situation was the fact that the brand Kodak was linked to film, to an old technology. If they established a new brand to market digital cameras, probably the results had been different. But is easy to find ‘flaws’ and the ‘correct way’ of doing things after a fact happens. Difficult is anticipate what will happens. Regards.

Posted by fbsrosa | Report as abusive

I would much rather elect a Democratic President, Senate, and House based on the obvious merits of Progressivism, but if Fundamentalists refuse to support Romney, that will make the important job of political process that much easier for the good guys.

Posted by Jonathan77 | Report as abusive

Romney’s Mormon faith is important for a number of reasons, and not just to Evangelicals.

For instance, how is he going to explain the Mormon practice of “baptizing” dead Holocaust victims? And then there is the incident in which Anne Romney’s father, a long-time atheist, was baptized into the Mormon faith, post mortem and without his permission.

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints performs vicarious baptisms for individuals regardless of their race, sex, creed, or morality. It has baptized both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust, including Anne Frank and Adolf Hitler. Some Jewish Holocaust survivors and some Jewish organizations have strenuously objected to this practice.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baptism_for _the_dead

The Church of the LDS is a secretive, hierarchical organization that is shrouded in mystery. The American people are entitled to know more about how Romney’s religious beliefs will impact his presidency.

Posted by FoggyDay | Report as abusive

I think this is the difference between politics and corporate-think, which we keep hearing will ‘save America if we run it like a corporation’. I’ve worked at many corporations, and thank goodness our government isn’t run like one. Did you ever vote for your CEO? Can you kick them out in 4 years if you don’t like them? Our political system always has it’s share of ‘smart, snarky lieutenants’ in the form of the opposition.

But this brings us to the reality of running a race against the opposition. In a corporate world, a CEO can come in on Monday and say “Buggy whips are just old school. Let’s start making steering wheels.” Short of a boardroom revolt, he (or she) can see the transformation through without worrying about the ramifications. A politician cannot. Supporters of the buggy whip lobby would now be pressed into action to shred any legislative agenda the President had planned, while PACs would run 24-hour news ads on how shuttering the buggy whip plant, while saving the corporation, put hard working Americans out on the street (blasting a decorated vet for having the temerity to serve on a SWIFT boat comes to mind).

Politicians face a relentless opponent that will look for any misstep or gaffe and turn it into the arrow to slay the opponent. Politicians need to play not to lose rather than the CEO’s goal of playing to win. If Romney were to openly take on the issue, he would be exposing himself to far more risk than staying on message (something about fairness to millionaires or businessmen make better politicians, I think). This isn’t the America of 1960, and a keynote speech on a candidate’s religious background certainly has the propensity of doing far more harm than good, especially if you have voters who may not have made up their mind about the candidate but have made up their mind about Mormonism.

Think back to President Clinton’s classic ‘I didn’t inhale’ to deflate questions about his personal choices as a young man (President GW Bush did similar face service to his destructive youth as well). To face up to the question that needed to be asked (Do we have a reasonable and enforceable drug policy) would have been political suicide. Likewise, affirming your faith while losing the election might make for a great Disney film, but not the path any candidate chooses voluntarily.

Posted by Mike_s1 | Report as abusive

“He is, in our view, the most qualified and electable Republican candidate left in the race.” That implies that it does not matter if the Republican candidate is the best candidate for the country: instead of “Reuters”, perhaps you should just call yourself ‘Republicans’.

Posted by JoeOvercoat | Report as abusive

Let’s think about what motivates Mitt Romney to be so obtuse. How about vanity? Does he think his great achievements and charisma can overcome all?
When you can see a closeup of his hair, note the indications he has had a hair transplant. There is a central tuft of hair on his forehead. In the front of the tuft are about ten small bundles of hair hat look very much like transplanted chunks. In the background of the central tuft is a broad sweep of baldness. Yessir, VANITY

Posted by LouVignates | Report as abusive

StatusQu0, the fact that you are a registered Republican and will be voting for the President is interesting. I am curious about how you fee that the Obama Administration has made our lives better over the course of his current term. It appears to me that the country is more divided than it was and most of his campaign promises, save the “fundamental transformation” promise have not come to fruition. I re-started my life after Jimmy Carter left office and Ronald Reagan took office and began a new career because I was unemployed or underemployed during the bulk of his term. I became unemployed again shortly after Mr. Obama took office with several negative consequences resulting from the lack of employment. I also voted for Mr. Obama and watched while he made the transition to the office and fully expected that there would be missteps along the way for the first year and a half. After 2 years he was still blaming Bush. After 3 years he is still blaming Bush. I contrast him with Ronald Reagan when he took over a really bad economy from Jimmy Carter. Reagan never once said anything to disparage Jimmy or the policies that his government had during those turbulent times. George Bush also took over a stumbling economy and got it back on track after 9/11 and got the unemployment below 5%.

I currently see no redeeming factors with staying with the current President. He has pandered to almost every faction in the country and did his apology tour overseas and in the process alienated a lot of us old vets that still think that we are an exceptional country that bows to no-one. Kissing babies is fine. Kissing the ring of other world leaders is not.

Posted by sickofitinca | Report as abusive