Bob Miano's Blog

An Executive journal

What Lies Ahead for American Business?

Last week, I hosted my annual Harvey Nash USA Leadership Lecture. My invited speakers were my boss, Albert Ellis, Global CEO of Harvey Nash, and the distinguished Senator from Massachusetts, John Kerry. I was so pleased to have the event attended by nearly 150 executives from some of the world's most well-known companies, with more than 500 people viewing via a live stream online. The enthusiasm and excitement were contagious! Everyone in the live and remote audience was clearly anxious to hear more about the topic I had selected this year: "What Lies Ahead for American Business?"

It is certainly a timely question. It's also a hard question -- one without easy answers. And hard questions are the very point of these Harvey Nash Leadership Lectures. We pose big, important questions to smart, experienced, thoughtful people who have unique perspectives and expertise on the topic. We gather their insights, we benefit from their knowledge, and we grow as business leaders.

My first speaker, Albert Ellis, took us on a fast-paced tour of Europe, Asia and U.S. markets and provided a very focused and comprehensive summary of global economic conditions. Concluding that business needs three things from government today -- a clear plan for handling long-term finances, balanced books and predictable, sustainable tax policies -- he very ably set the stage for me as I transitioned the audience from the international scene to the domestic.

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That's me with Senator John Kerry as he takes questions from our audience.

When I introduced Senator Kerry, he was very up front in acknowledging the awkwardness of his position as a member of a group that currently has only an 8% approval rating. No stranger to addressing the toughest challenges facing America, Senator Kerry ploughed ahead, offering us an insider's look at Congress and the challenges that we face in both the domestic arena and the global marketplace. As someone whose job requires him to wrestle daily with our country's most profound challenges, Senator Kerry presented a straightforward assessment of some of our most critical issues: deficit reduction, unemployment, job creation, trade imbalance, economic stimulus and financial stability.

In the Senator's first shot across the bow, he told us that the bottom line today is that we are challenged right now to some degree by our own unwillingness to face reality and be honest with ourselves about what it will really take to move this country forward. On the upside, there is lots of opportunity for American businesses around the globe. Much of the world is still struggling to reach modernity. Growing economies in countries such as China, Vietnam and Brazil are investing significantly in infrastructure development, green energy, education, services and more. The downside is that there is also lots of investment cash sitting on the sidelines due to continuing economic uncertainty. While global businesses have successfully scaled back and honed their own strategies to boost competitiveness over the past several years in order to jump on those opportunities, our government has neither learned from the example of business, nor has it been a sufficient partner in establishing the right framework to help American businesses seize those opportunities.

Why not? Therein resides the answer to the question I had posed for this leadership lecture. What lies ahead for American business is more of the same uncertainty and missed opportunities, unless the business community raises its voice to Congress to move beyond partisan politics. Our Congress is focusing almost exclusively on what it believes is right for the party, when it needs to get back to the business of what is right for America.

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Senator John Kerry addressing C-level business leaders at the Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture.

A 28-year veteran of Washington politics, Senator Kerry expressed extreme dismay at the current state of inertia in the Capitol. With dire warnings issued by then Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson back in 2008, Congress took a number of painful steps to avert disaster. Without them, our economy would have imploded. Since then, however, politics seems to have gotten in the way of legislating for the greater good. Noting that the business of governing resulted in just two filibusters in the 19th century, another two in the first half of the 20th century but hundreds in a single session today, our legislators are stymied. This was readily apparent when the Senator provided a rare, behind-the-scenes recounting of how all the balanced budget proposals of recent years withered on the vine of legislative polarity.

We continue to face huge challenges. It doesn't take rocket science to understand that you cannot spend more than you earn... at least not for long. Following "two wars and a tax cut funded by a credit card," Senator Kerry warned of dire straits ahead. He told us that America is "heading for an entitlement cliff." By 2024, the U.S. government will be channeling all of its revenues into funding Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Government cannot sustain itself when it borrows forty cents of every dollar it spends. Tough choices need to be made before that happens. Business knows how critical it is to balance the books. Government needs to do the same.

Kerry further conveyed that the realities of partisan politics feed a dangerous atmosphere that camouflages America's opportunities at home and abroad. The same country that put a man on the moon yesterday is today "living off the infrastructure that our grandparents built for us," he said. In this time of short-sightedness and zero investment in the future, what exactly are we leaving to our own grandchildren? We need to excite industrial investment. We need to regain our competitive edge. We need to make tough choices. That's what Congress needs to do. What about the business community? (That's what I really wanted to hear.) According to John Kerry, business leaders need to raise their voices and demand action by legislators who seem to be more concerned about future elections than the future of our nation. If they do, then what lies ahead for American business will be an economy stabilized, confidence bolstered, opportunity realized, deficit reduced, jobs generated, infrastructure modernized, education improved, and critical social services preserved.

With many thanks to both Albert Ellis and Senator John Kerry for their insightful observations at our Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture. They certainly fulfilled my mission to help us all grow as business leaders.

If you would like to hear what they had to say firsthand, go to: www.harveynash.com/leadershiplecture.

One final thought: In listening to the Senator describe the total lack of give and take in Congressional debate, I was reminded that the art of negotiating is a critical skill for any sales organization. And the sign of a successful negotiation is that both parties walk away satisfied with the outcome... to some degree. I wonder if the members of Congress might benefit from a refresher course on this. What do you think?