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Mon 15 Mar 2010 04:00 AM

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Politicians can learn from CEOs

Thailand’s former prime minister introduced CEO-style leadership to his government. He argues it’s the only way to lead.

Politicians can learn from CEOs

I knew from my days of running a multi-billion dollar company that if I was ever fortunate enough to run a country, the country’s problems could not be solved without first solving the problems of government. How is it set up? How is it structured? How is it accountable? Is it really efficient? Is it delivering on the objectives it has set out? Are the people that elected that government benefiting from the government they elected?

The answer to all these questions I felt was no, particularly in Thailand. The root of the problem lies in the fact that normally — traditionally and historically — governments are structured by political scientists and lawyers. When it comes to management, to be blunt, they have no idea. They have political power structures and legal structures. But they don’t have the organisation theory or management theory that is needed to succeed.

Across the world, the set-up and structure of governments has been influenced by the Industrial Revolution. But in today’s modern world, governments need to be set up as networking organisations, in the same way that modern businesses are. Today, old style networks work slowly and cannot ultimately work. That is not a theory or prediction but sadly a fact. Companies adapt every day to the changing world, but governments, for reasons I have never understood, are less keen on change.

So I had no doubt that the day I came into power, I would launch a total restructuring of the way our political system operated and introduce the concept of CEO-style governors. My supporters and critics both called it the “big bang”, and I guess it was a shock — though a much needed and welcome shock — to the country.

My aim was to transform the role of provincial governors from ceremonial supervisors of ministry officials to active managers of government policy. Historically, central government ministries operated in the provinces through field offices headed by senior officials, who reported back to Bangkok. The Ministry of Interior appointed provincial governors whose role was largely ceremonial. But what was the point of this? These provisional governors were just glorified mayors. They had fancy titles and appeared at charity events. They would be the first in any newspaper photograph of a provisional event. First to cut the tape, first to eat the cake, and first back to their comfy lives.

So I went back to basics, and my experience as a CEO myself. Being a CEO means you need a strategy and you must own that strategy to drive it forward, and be responsible for all the functions under you. In the past this didn’t work because no one was responsible for anything. Things were just too bureaucratic and the world was moving faster than everyone else.

This feeling of responsibility and accountability was practically non-existent before I came to power. And I knew that if created the so-called CEO governors, they would have no choice but to change. Look at the CEOs of public companies. Do you think they are responsible people? Do you think they make decisions in the best interests of their companies and shareholders? Of course they do, because those that don’t are held accountable. Ultimately, they are removed from office.

In the past, we had a system of 20 ministries and each had appointed an official for the relevant districts. But who was their leader? They were reporting back to Bangkok. But that was wrong; they should report back to their provisional leader — the governor or the CEO.

I created this tier of new leaders who would be responsible in every shape and form for their district. The people who lived in those districts should be treated as shareholders of the region. It meant the governors now had not just a fancy ceremonial role but a proper role with a proper job. We would then check their performance and their results through my ministers. We would set up meetings to ask them what they are doing and what help they needed.

I based this all on my business experience. It works as long as you can understand and implement it. But many people envied it saying I had too much power. Actually the opposite was true — I wanted people to be more accountable.

I think in the end the results spoke for themselves. The CEO-style of government worked. People did become more accountable, and I also believe they took a greater passion for the job they did.

Had I stayed in power, I would have carried on doing this. I have met many other leaders since leaving office, and it’s interesting that many of them are considering trying something similar.

All I will say is that leadership is everything, both in business and politics. If what you are doing doesn’t work, then change your style of leadership.Thaksin Shinawatra is the former prime minister of Thailand.

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