I spend a good part of my professional life helping leadership teams in fast-growing SMEs to develop and scale. A pivotal role in any such organisation is that of the CEO, the overseer, the visionary and chief strategist, the chief communicator for the business to investors and other stakeholders, the team leader of the leadership team and the ultimate leader of all the staff.
In many ways, the role of a Prime Minister is analogous to that of a CEO. A PM may or may not be a specialist in a particular field, such as finance, or foreign relations, but he or she must be a leader and command respect (though not necessarily affection).
As we maintain in our work with businesses, he or she must be able to set out a vision and a strategy for the organisation, and then make sure that the organisation, its platforms and resources are able to deliver that strategy.
In a political context, this means setting out a vision and strategy for the government, for at least a single term of office, leading his or her team, the cabinet, providing clear direction to his or her cabinet team and senior civil servants, translating this into a clear plan of action, and being able to communicate all this to multiple stakeholders. It is a tough task for any mere politician, and one that only a few politicians are suited to.
As we are now discovering in gruesome detail, Boris Johnson was entirely unfit to be CEO of Britain.
Apparently described by those close to him as a “shopping trolley”, unable to steer a clear path, keep a sense of direction, not vacillate on an almost daily basis, we are also, thanks to the Covid enquiry, discovering how contemptuous he was towards some colleagues, certain senior civil servants and a large section of the population at risk of serious harm from Covid.
Add to that revelations of misogyny at the heart of government, a vacuum of leadership at key moments in the run up to lockdown, and of course further details of lock-down get-togethers. All in all, we are witnessing the revelation of possibly the worst CEO the country has endured in a couple of generations. He has a job now, back in journalism, which is where he should have remained, and spared us all his hapless attempt at leadership.
There are various reasons why such people end up as CEOs. Exalted self-belief, disconnected from realistic self-awareness, narcissism, over promotion by powerful supporters, and good timing. Self-absorbed individuals make terrible CEOs, as their job is supposed to be to get the best out of the people around them rather than promote themselves. At worst, they play members of the leadership team off against each other, to preserve their power base, creating an insecure, toxic culture in the leadership.
Enough of Johnson. Now we know, and now he is sidelined to GB News (though on a handsome salary to spout his nonsense there). Rishi Sunak is the interim CEO, the caretaker, whilst we wait for the election to clarify the appointment for the next 5 years at least (and likely longer).
Given the in-fighting in the Conservative party, and the need to assuage factions, Sunak can’t set out a meaningful vision for Britain let alone a strategy for the coming years. He is the bridge between the chaos of Johnson and Truss and what we hope will be the competent, capable leadership of Keir Starmer.
So as CEO, what will Starmer need to demonstrate? A vision and strategy will be important, however dull it might be, but it must be supported by a clear financial plan – in other words, the country must live within its means, and those means are limited. So, I am not expecting an ambitious vision or strategy but at least some tangible initiatives, which can be tracked over time.
More important is leadership of his team, a team apparently much more capable than the current cabinet, providing clarity, direction and empowering each of his “C-suite”, the Secretaries of State, to play their role. Some will be found wanting, never having played their roles before, and if they can’t be developed quickly enough, the CEO must be incisive and ruthless – there is plenty of talent available in the second tier of the parliamentary party which can be promoted.
The quality of relationships between executive and civil service needs to be repaired in several ministries.
Like all good CEOs, Starmer needs to be mindful of his stakeholders and communicate well with them – of course the voting public, but above all business, both domestic and those wishing to invest in Britain, and the UK’s key strategic partners, in NATO and in mainland Europe. The issue of Gaza is a taster of how difficult this will be for Starmer. His predecessors have made the job even harder for him.
Will Starmer make a good CEO?
Hard to tell, as he will be a first-time leader of his country. But he has been at the head of another big national organisation before, as Director of Public Prosecutions for the Crown Prosecution Service, so he is familiar with the hot seat and the pressures of leadership.
He does not appear to be arrogant, nor is he a narcissist, nor a misogynist, and certainly he is no lover of chaos. Fingers crossed…. with the hope that we can move on soon from the caretaker CEO.