Getting Down to Business

Over the past few months more than one observer has pointed to the cash-rich balance sheets of America's large companies and asked why some of that money isn't being put to use putting people back to work. The inevitable--and not entirely unreasonable--reply is that the tax, regulatory and trade environment in Washington is so muddled that business is paralyzed, unwilling or unable to make long-term commitments in the face of fluctuating and often escalating government-imposed cost overlays.

Earlier this month former Medtronic CEO Bill George published a clear, constructive eight-point list of pragmatic steps for Washington to take in order to get business hiring again. But without keepers of accountability, even straightforward initiatives like George's drown in Washington's political wrangling. Solution: apply positive outside pressure.

A handful of the nation's Fortune 50 CEOs--Balmer, Immelt, McDonald, Nooyi, for example--could commit to hire 1,000 new employees today, challenging every company in the Fortune 500 to do so as well. A simultaneous pledge to hire an additional 1,000, if half or more of the items on George's list were accomplished by January 1, 2012, would demonstrate the business community's willingness to take responsibility for acute issues facing the country, assuming a much-needed leadership role--one driven by collaborative, creative problem solving--something sorely lacking in Washington. Communicated powerfully and effectively, the initiative would likely galvanize hiring by companies outside of the Fortune 500. If Washington toes the line? The hiring climate improves for all--significantly.

Detractors--including bottom-line conscious investors--will likely charge that an initiative like this smacks of corporate welfare. In fact, many of these companies are actually hiring already--Berkshire Hathaway, Google, Dow Chemicals and Caterpillar, for example--so this is partly about leveraging the power of coordinated communication. Additionally, by coupling communication about hiring with a commitment to focus on long-term strategy, resources and performance, companies would be shifting public and investors' attention away from the relentless quarterly earnings grind.

Washington is teaching lessons in tit-for-tat, divisiveness and blame. In sitting on the sidelines over the past six months, while Washington has wrestled, the business community--typically a reliable source of can-do problem solving--has shown disturbing, deepening signs of adopting Washington's ways. The challenges facing the US economy are too profound for everyone to descend to the same level of behavior. Business has real resources to take ownership of constructive win-win solutions. The positive ROI will hit more than the bottom line.