Rex Tillerson Proved CEOs Are DOA in Washington

The secretary of state's rocky tenure showed why politics should stop head-hunting business leaders.

By , the CEO of PEN America.
Rex Tillerson U.S. arrives in Mexico City on February 1, 2018. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)
Rex Tillerson U.S. arrives in Mexico City on February 1, 2018. (Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

Although Rex Tillerson’s Cabinet tenure is only now officially over, the former oil tycoon had been a zombie secretary of state for months: dead in terms of clout and credibility but still going through the motions.

Tillerson’s downfall is reason to re-examine the notion that success as a corporate CEO is necessarily a qualification for service as a U.S. Cabinet secretary. Several of Tillerson’s most pronounced shortcomings relate directly to his many years in the corner office at ExxonMobil and should prompt skepticism the next time a corporate titan is touted for high office based on that credential alone.

With no government experience, Tillerson’s sole qualification for service as secretary of state was his four-decade career at ExxonMobil, the only place he’d ever worked. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and former national security advisor Stephen Hadley (all of whom had consulting ties to ExxonMobil) and others endorsed him as worldly, a strong manager, and adept in working with foreign leaders. Tillerson’s only other remotely relevant qualification was a two-year stint as the top volunteer leader of the Boy Scouts.

The notion that success in business is ample qualification for high public office is not new. In some cases, like former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney’s rise to the vice presidency, the corporate stint was just one stop in a long career that included other relevant government and political experience. Often, though, corporate triumphs and their attendant wealth have been treated as sufficient credentials to merit high office. The results have been mixed: Perhaps the most famous and fraught example was Robert McNamara, who went from running Ford Motor Company to serving as secretary of defense, where he presided over the ill-fated escalation of the Vietnam War. Former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine ended his New Jersey governorship with plummeting approval ratings. Billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg’s 12-year reign in New York City was what some might describe as a corporate mayoralty: criticized for rising income inequality, homelessness, and racial tension, but also credited with a cleaner, safer, and more prosperous city.

Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department has, by all accounts, been undermined by his lack of rapport and policy alignment with President Donald Trump. But his inability to win over his boss has been compounded by a failure to win over the State Department’s staff of 24,000 Americans serving in Washington and overseas. In nearly a year at the department, Tillerson’s presence in the organization has been akin to a virus, prompting the bureaucracy and its defenders to build antibodies against him. A steady drumbeat of articles, editorials, resignation letters and tweets have decried Tillerson’s tone-deafness, the mass exodus of senior leaders on his watch, his disregard for the department’s experts, his insular management style, and what comes off — despite his many denials — as hostility toward the State Department’s central mission of maintaining robust diplomatic engagement around the world.

The most powerful lightning rod of Tillerson’s brief tenure has been his grand plan to remake the department with the help of outside management consultants. No one would argue that State couldn’t benefit from reforms. Many of the department’s structures and methods — reliance on diplomatic cables, roles duplicated in Washington and embassies, and continued reliance on Mad Men-era office support staffing structures — date back to a time where distance, time delay, and communications limitations dictated the methods and means of diplomacy.

Civil service protections, rigid promotion systems, and inertia have kept the department from adapting more fully to the times. But the administration’s decision to kick off the reorganization by announcing it would culminate in a 30 percent reduction of State’s budget sent an unmistakable signal that the aim was to slash and save, rather than strengthen and revitalize. Whether demoralizing the department was intentional or due to negligence doesn’t matter: The result has been a parade of leaks and critiques of Tillerson’s approach, dooming his reforms from the start.

Tillerson’s woes at State are rooted in the mindset of the CEO-turned-statesman. In the upper echelons of the private sector, there is a propensity to view those who have pursued careers in government service as a lesser breed, lacking in ambition, intellect, or savvy. As one anonymous State Department staffer said of Tillerson in an interview with Vanity Fair: “It’s possible that there was disdain for anybody who is a government official because of this idea in the private sector that only the best are in the private sector.” While Tillerson style isn’t to insult, his support for massive staff cuts, refusal to meet with senior departmental leaders, and dismissal or abrupt reassignment of top officials demonstrated that he views few among his inherited staff as worthy of the salaries they’re paid, much less his time.

Traditional Republican derisiveness about the role and size of government feeds this scorn. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) wrote bluntly back in January, “Washington’s many agencies, bureaus and departments propagate rules that weigh down businesses, destroy jobs, and limit American freedoms. Career bureaucrats who never face the voters wield punishing authority with little to no accountability. If there’s a swamp in Washington, this is it.” Tillerson is less blunt, but his testimony before the Senate Committee on Appropriations last June similarly decried spending increases for foreign aid and international relations during the Barack Obama years. He advocated a return to “responsible stewardship” of Americans’ tax dollars and advanced a narrow vision of the role of diplomacy as principally focused on keeping Americans safe. That dismissiveness toward major facets of the State Department’s mission — including humanitarian assistance, human rights, refugee policy, and environmental issues — allowed Tillerson to announce drastic budget cuts before setting out any vision for what a revamped State Department might look like, what it would prioritize, and what it could afford to spare. So much for corporate caution; no private-sector restructuring would promise such draconian cost cuts without first thinking through whether they could be achieved while keeping the business running.

Tillerson’s refusal to meet with the head of diplomatic security, consult with senior department officials before White House meetings, or fill key slots has compounded the problem. While the secretary of state’s tussles with the White House over certain key appointments have contributed to the delay, his own lack of zeal in putting forward nominees has left the department in the hands of interim, temporary, and acting officials lacking in requisite expertise and authority. Whereas at ExxonMobil employees ignored by the boss might have been able to soldier on drilling and selling oil, in international relations, being out of the loop can grind work to a standstill: Officials don’t know what objectives to aim for, whether past policies are still operative, or how to get things approved. A frequent adjective used to describe the Tillerson State Department is “paralyzed.”

By equating international deal-making in pursuit of profits with diplomacy to advance U.S. interests, Tillerson’s boosters set the stage for a foreign policy with costly blind spots. As one anonymous supporter put it to CNN after Tillerson was nominated: “Oil is about geopolitics with a capital G. You do business in the toughest places with the toughest characters and Rex is the best of that group.” Unlike some corporations that make social responsibility and human rights brand hallmarks, Tillerson’s ExxonMobil was known for doing business with anyone, anywhere that oil could be found. Tillerson’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s repressive regime are well known. During his time at ExxonMobil, the company was also accused of complicity in widely publicized human rights abuses, including torture by security officials in Indonesia’s Aceh province. While Tillerson paid lip service to values-based leadership in his confirmation testimony, there was nothing in his professional background to signify interest in the plight of the downtrodden, the cause of justice, the expansion of rights, or any of the other nobler dimensions of U.S. policymaking.

Tillerson even proposed excising the words “just” and “democratic” from the State Department’s official mission statement, absented himself from the annual presentation of the State Department’s global human rights report, shuttered the office dedicated to closing down Guantánamo, snubbed the Community of Democracies, threatened withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and, in a May speech, defined an “America first” foreign policy as one that would not allow values to be “obstacles” standing in the way of economic or security interests. For U.S. allies around the world, Tillerson and the Trump administration’s abdication of the United States’ traditional role as a human rights standard-bearer has left a vacuum, diminishing one of the most powerful platforms that has in the past made U.S. global leadership more attractive to democratic allies than to Russia or China.

Tillerson’s shortcomings can also be traced to his years of sequestration in a C-suite. He was not one of those CEOs known for visiting the oil fields, gas pumps, or, for that matter, the cafeteria. He was known to retreat instead to an office atop ExxonMobil’s headquarters building in what was known as the “God Pod.” His habits at the State Department have been similar. The Department’s seventh-floor mahogany suites are cut off from the rest of the building. Secretaries of state have to make it their business to mingle with staff at office parties or invite subordinates to lunches and policy strategy sessions. Tillerson has done the opposite, shielding himself with a chief of staff and head of policy planning who manage the rest of the department. During overseas trips, he has preferred to skip the meet-and-greets that boost the morale of embassy personnel and their families.

He has also eschewed the press. When planning his first official trip to Asia, Tillerson chose an airplane too small to accommodate the traveling press corps, opting to be accompanied by just one reporter from a conservative website. He explained the decision at the time by saying, “I’m not a big media-press-access person. I personally don’t need it.” At ExxonMobil, press was hardly necessary; coverage, when it happened, was more likely to be negative than positive. At State, though, Tillerson’s corporate-honed media shyness was misplaced on three counts: It squandered the opportunity to shape the message around his trip, alienated those responsible for covering the new secretary of state, and sent an embarrassing signal globally, where the United States has styled itself as a defender of a robust and free press.

Finally, Tillerson’s decade in the top slot at ExxonMobil may have compounded his greatest weakness in Washington: managing up to a boss. When you’re a CEO, everyone works under you to keep you happy. In government, with the exception of the president, every senior official must simultaneously manage down the chain of command to large staffs, across to counterparts in other departments and agencies, and — above all — upward to ensure that the White House staff and president himself are informed and in sync. In several notable instances, Tillerson either failed to or didn’t even try to get Trump on board with key policy priorities.

When he rightly sought to mediate tensions between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, Trump undercut him. When he mentioned back-channel efforts to negotiate with North Korea, the president chided him publicly not to talk to “Rocket Man.” While it may be that Trump’s improvisational style, indifference to strategy, and outspokenness would be immune to any effort at policy coordination, Tillerson’s failure to recruit allies around the president to help insulate critical diplomatic initiatives has been glaring. While Tillerson might say his clashes with Trump have been in the service of reasoned moderation, his failure to bring along the diplomatic corps or the media has blunted his efficacy and his potential impact as a foil to the president.

Serving as secretary of state to a renegade president who disdains diplomacy, formulates policy on Twitter, and shows reckless indifference to the longstanding pillars of American global leadership is difficult. Under these circumstances, though, a thoughtful and capable secretary would have sought to use his position to safeguard the American diplomatic infrastructure and international integrity that will hopefully outlive Donald Trump’s presidency. Instead, with no experience other than four decades spent climbing the corporate ladder, Tillerson has shown that he lacks the dexterity to serve a mercurial master or to effectively rein him in.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel