Trump CEO Adviser 'An Opportunity To Have a Voice at the Table'

Rich Lesser, 54, is the CEO of the Boston Consulting Group and a member of Donald Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum. In an interview, he explains his decision to remain in the role despite the criticism from in- and outside his company.
U.S. President Donald Trump

U.S. President Donald Trump


SPIEGEL: Mr. Lesser, you belong to an exclusive group of 18 CEOs advising Donald Trump. Is this an honor or a burden?

Lesser: Any time the president is asking to give advice this is a privilege, but it is also a responsibility.

SPIEGEL: Responsibility for whom?

Lesser: For the citizens. We try to contribute to make things better. As a consulting company, BCG looks so deeply at many topics. When we have the opportunity to share those ideas and bring them forward in a direct way to our clients or to the president, we look for ways to do that.

SPIEGEL: But sitting at the table with this president risks looking like an endorsement of his policy. Among your staff and in the wider BCG community, your decision has thus sparked criticism.

Lesser: Any time you take a visible role, it's subject to criticism and I think that is particularly true right now, after such a divisive presidential campaign. There was anger and frustration on both sides. And some of the things advocated by the president are extremely controversial. I therefore discussed with my executive committee members and many partners in BCG how we felt about taking on this role or not. We concluded that it is an opportunity to have a voice at the table and to make a difference.

SPIEGEL: The first meeting with the president took place only one week after the so-called "Muslim ban" that initially blocked people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Many of your 14,000 employees at the time questioned whether it was a good decision to sit at the table with this president.

Lesser: The travel and immigration executive order put more of a spotlight on the council than we were expecting it to receive. I got a lot of notes from various members of staff, many of them quite concerned -- but also many supportive ones. Since then, between staff meetings, conversations and emails, I think I have connected with close to 1,000 people to explain why I am doing this. I also assured them that I had brought forward a lot of the input they had shared with me. I think the majority supports my participation now.

SPIEGEL: Does being part of this council create a credibility problem for you? BCG actively promotes diversity. This president discriminates against Muslims, women and minorities.

Lesser: BCG has a passionate commitment to diversity. Our executive committee now has 35 percent women, we have grown our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community by ten times in ten years, we have doubled our African-American and Hispanic community here in the U.S. in the last five years. Our staff knows that. And they also know that BCG does not shy away from tough topics. It can sometimes feel easier and safer to retreat in the face of controversy. But if I resigned, for one hour, this would be news and I would get a lot of attention -- and perhaps applause from some. And then? We are two months into this new administration, it's a four-year term, that's less than 5 percent. For the remaining 95 percent of this administration, our voice would no longer be at the table.

SPIEGEL: How outspoken were the CEOs in the council on the travel ban? How outspoken have you been about your own concerns?

Lesser: Four CEOs asked to speak on the executive order; I was one of them. Elon Musk has already publicly said that he spoke about it, Ginni Rometty from IBM also. It was a very engaged discussion and people spoke directly about their views, including their concerns.

SPIEGEL: The impression after the first nine weeks, though, is that the president only listens to a very small group of advisers surrounding Steve Bannon and that he tends to ignore facts. What makes you confident that you can make a difference?

Lesser: Any time you are an adviser, you do it on the assumption that you will be listened to. But listening does not necessarily mean that everything you say will be taken. If you look at the second executive order, a number of the areas where members of the forum expressed concerns were in fact addressed -- for example, excluding people with visas, permanent residents or green card holders, clarifying exceptions for case-by case-waivers like infants or medical emergencies and improving the implementation process. That's not speaking for whether the executive order will be supported by the courts, where multiple appeals are underway.

SPIEGEL: Many CEOs -- from Apple CEO Tim Cook to Netflix head Reed Hastings or Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey -- who are not on the council have distanced themselves publicly from the "Muslim ban." There was no such statement from BCG. Is it harder to criticize the president publicly when you are part of the council?

Lesser: First: We operate in 48 countries around the world. There are, of course, many policies with which we disagree across those countries. But once we start commenting on policies in one country, we would have to do this in many other countries. So, in general, our policy is that we don't comment publicly on government policy. We seek to make a difference, to contribute through our public-sector practice, our social-impact practice and by engaging with leaders -- that's much more effective. Second: When you are participating in a forum like this and you can directly express your voice, it is better to do it in a direct rather than a public way.

SPIEGEL: Uber CEO Travis Kalanick left the council quickly because 200,000 clients protested by walking away from the service. How did your clients react?

Lesser: We had a few clients with concerns, but most believe what we actually believe: When there are hard issues, the best way to address them is in a direct, candid way. And this is a big opportunity to help improving the economy in the years ahead. The U.S. has a need to grow at a faster rate. Many traditional jobs will be put under pressure or will be going away as technology advances. This administration has talked about a $1 trillion infrastructure investment program. Depending on how you spend this sum, it can create 1.5 million jobs or 4 million jobs. That's a big difference. We have a lot of expertise on these topics.

SPIEGEL: BCG also works for governments. Do you hope to benefit from the council commercially?

SPIEGEL: No, I didn't go into this thinking: What's in our interest? This role for me is entirely about how to contribute and help the country move forward.

SPIEGEL: Your former senior adviser Ron Nicol advises the transition team, helping the Trump government. BCG also advises a nongovernmental organization that works for Trump's transition team. Is BCG as a whole too close to the new government?

Lesser: May I share some context? We started supporting the Partnership for Public Service, the NGO you mentioned, in 2011, before the prior election. With over 4,000 positions turning over in a government, U.S. transitions are very complex and often haven't been done well. We have been involved over the past six years strictly on a pro bono basis. In this election cycle, through the NGO, not directly, between the conventions and the general election, we offered the same support to both candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. After the election, we were asked to offer project management support, not policy or personnel selection support. The support ended with the inauguration. Ron Nicol retired from BCG in December 2015 and is now a senior adviser. He provided his postelection support as a volunteer and a private citizen.

SPIEGEL: Is there a red line you would not want to cross that would prompt you to leave the council?

Lesser: We have a president who has not served in an elected office before. A lot of people on his team have just come on board. I don't belong to the people who say: I have seen the first nine weeks, I know what the next four years will look like. I don't think it's helpful to engage in the hypotheticals of how the months ahead could evolve. But I hope, as with many prior administrations, that we will see evolution and improvement over time.

SPIEGEL: But recent political events tell another story. For example, Trump's effort to repeal and replace parts of "Obamacare" through the American Health Care Act just failed.

Lesser: Indeed, there was not enough support from the Republican Party in the House. However, if you look at the announcement to establish a White House Office of American Innovation -- which will be tasked to reduce bureaucracy and make the government more effective by applying lessons from the business world -- this is a new and potentially very promising approach.

SPIEGEL: You're a Democrat.

Lesser: Yes, I'm a registered Democrat.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 14/2017 (April 1, 2017) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL: It must be hard for you personally to sit at the table with Trump.

Lesser: We have to encourage groups with different perspectives to come together. Otherwise, we risk creating echo chambers where only people who are fully aligned talk to each other -- and that rarely produces the best answers, regardless whether in business or politics.

SPIEGEL: You're shying away from giving a direct answer.

Lesser: We are not shy at BCG. The best way to live our values is to engage actively on the most important issues. This is why I am on this forum.

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