We Asked Business’s Top Turnaround Pros How to Save the GOP

April 25, 2016, 10:30 AM UTC
Photo Illustration by Justin Metz

Four years ago, Republicans decided that a corporate turnaround artist was their best shot for recapturing the White House. Their nominee, Mitt Romney, even wrote a 2007 book called Turnaround. This election season they might consider hiring one to heal the party itself.

Disappointed constituents, unpopular leadership, sagging morale—as the GOP careers toward its first contested convention in 40 years, the challenges facing the institution have plenty of parallels in the business world. So Fortune asked some of the most experienced fix-it specialists to devise a game plan for how the storied brand can put itself back together.

The first step may be just admitting there’s a problem. If you look at the GOP as a business, says Bob Nardelli, a former CEO of Home Depot (HD) and Chrysler (FCAU), “the CEO and the board have been somewhat in denial about the situation the company is facing.” For example, the party barely tweaked its approach after Romney’s presidential trouncing in 2012 even though elements, like more trade deals and tax cuts for the rich, proved very unpopular with customers…er, voters.

Now its top two presidential prospects, billionaire developer Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, are so reviled by the broader electorate that their nomination could imperil Republican majorities in Congress. But the two also speak for voters who felt ignored as the party won elections but delivered few economic gains for its white working-class base. The sense among those voters that elites are locking them out has enabled Trump and Cruz to storm the gates—in the way activist investors confront an out-of-touch executive team.

Getting back in sync with the country will take hard, uncomfortable work—like appeasing the base’s demand for immigration enforcement without repelling Hispanic voters. “You have to try to accommodate some of their concerns and address that they’re real,” says Gordon Bethune, the celebrated former Continental Airlines (UAL). That might mean some housecleaning in the C-suite. “There are not a lot of examples of companies that have gone through a successful transformation that have kept the same management team,” says Sydney Finkelstein, a business professor and the author of Superbosses. CEOs move on, he notes, but political hands linger even after old methods stop working.

For more on the 2016 election, check out this Fortune video:

How different would an ascendant GOP look? Harvard’s Clayton Christensen recommends essentially starting from scratch. “The worst place you could choose to develop a new business model is within the old,” he says. “[Party leaders] need to figure out what is the right model and go out and build it separately.” That’s a big ask for an institution that’s by nature small-“c” conservative, but as businesses both good and bad could tell you, the only thing more painful than a restructuring is the alternative. 

A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline “How the GOP Can Pick Itself Back Up.”

Read More

Great ResignationDiversity and InclusionCompensationCEO DailyCFO DailyModern Board