Between certifying the presidential election results and the Capitol insurrection, businesses have been increasingly speaking out about the state of American politics. Many companies, including Marriott and JPMorgan Chase, paused their political donations to Republicans after the events of Jan. 6. Shortly before that, many business leaders signed a letter urging Congress to accept the Electoral College results.
Rich Lesser, the CEO of Boston Consulting Group, was among the signatories of that letter. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with the man who runs one of the nation’s premier management-consulting firms about how business leaders are thinking about their current role in politics. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: I was gonna start with how the relationship between businesses and American politics have changed in the last four years. But I think what I’m going to do is I’m going to ask you how they’ve changed in the last four weeks.
Rich Lesser: Well, we’re still on a journey to find that out. But I believe what we’re going to see is that there’s actually an agenda that overlaps between what business wants to do on many fronts and what the new administration has said that they want to try to achieve. But how we do it will, of course, be a substantial conversation in the months and years ahead. And then there are areas, particularly the area of tax and regulation, that could be somewhat contentious. And again, we’ll see how it plays out. But I think there’s certainly an openness to try to find common ground and move things forward from the business world looking at the new administration.
Ryssdal: I wonder though, Mr. Lesser, if there’s a wariness, given business’ experience with the Trump administration, which is, we should be clear, sometimes you were in, sometimes you were out, sometimes you were targeted by the president, and sometimes you were his best friend.
Lesser: I think the expectation is, the behaviors across the two administrations are likely to be quite different. And the things that made it feel risky with the last administration won’t be the same challenges of this one. It’s not saying there won’t be challenges this time, they’ll just be different ones.
Ryssdal: You are, obviously, the guy running a big consulting firm. So your job is to talk to other businesses, other CEOs. You’re on the board of directors at the Business Roundtable, which is, by definition, putting you in contact with other CEOs and business leaders. What kind of conversations are y’all having right now about the last number of months and weeks in this economy?
Lesser: Well, I think the last couple months, the single biggest conversation has been about the election and the risks to American democracy, and what’s the appropriate role of business to, on the one hand, not try to be interfering ourselves in elections, and on the other hand, to make it clear that we stand behind democracy and free and fair elections? And of course, anytime you change administrations, and certainly when it changes parties, then, you know, how to, how are things likely to evolve? What’s the right ways to contribute? And then I guess maybe at the top of the list, I probably should have started there, how do we get beyond this pandemic, which is an ongoing conversation. That’s top of the list in many situations.
Ryssdal: We should say here that a number of years ago, you served, in fact, on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum. Any regrets?
Lesser: Mostly not. I mean, it’s always a learning experience. I think it was for everyone. But I think about the issues. I served on it because we were told, and it was true, that we would have a chance to speak about things we cared about. And the four things that I spoke about, in my brief tenure on that, were not having a Muslim ban, having a strong trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, not blowing that up, supporting paid family leave and staying in the Paris climate accord. I look back years later, and I’d say I believe in all of those issues. And now most of them have happened, some on the last, in the last administration, some in this one. I think when you have a chance to contribute directly to leadership, you should do that. At some point, it was clear it wasn’t having the effect. And there was all sorts of other things that we were potentially being associated with, and it was time to withdraw, which the business community did. But I think you have to try with a new administration to advocate for things you think are important.
Ryssdal: I should tell you, Mr. Lesser, we called a bunch of CEOs who were on the president’s various councils and panels, and you were the guy who volunteered to come on and take questions on the radio. And I wonder what you make of that.
Lesser: I think business leaders are all struggling with how prominent to be at a time of such division. And I really have a lot of empathy for that. And at the same time, I think we have to speak clearly on the one hand, to support a range of views. And on the other hand, to speak in favor of our democracy and how we come together after such a difficult time. And I realize that it’s challenging to know what the boundary lines are, and to say it exactly right and not risk angering some, but I think it’s the right thing to try to speak to that.
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