Three leadership lessons SMEs can learn from the election

John Morris outlines what scale up businesses can take away from the 2017 general election campaign.

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John Morris
Published: 12 Jun 2017 Updated: 13 Jun 2022

The political arena is in turmoil (again!), the economy is facing a period of uncertainty and volatility and Brexit negotiations are set to begin in a matter of days.

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While a third electoral shock in less than a year has left the political arena reeling and there isn’t the sense of permanency we would want at the top in the UK, there is a silver lining for SMEs, scale ups and their advisers. This group (pretty much) got the result they wanted.

In new research conducted right up to polling day by Smith & Williamson, nearly two thirds of business leaders believed a Tory government would best benefit their ambitions. A week is a long time in politics, right now it feels like anything could change, but with the Conservatives leading parliament there will be some stability for business.

Electoral and behavioural experts will undoubtedly be poring over the ‘what if’s’ and formative moments from a campaign that started with such certainty and (almost) ended like a Greek tragedy – though no one has fallen on their sword (yet).

So, what can SMEs draw from this cautionary tale?

The ScaleUp Institute has identified leadership as one of its six scale-up gaps – the critical areas a business must focus on in order to scale successfully and I see a lot of parallels from the last six weeks.

Here are my three leadership lessons for scale up businesses from the general election.

Founders need to learn to be leaders

Scale-ups and modern politics share many characteristics and one of those is presidential style leadership. The buck stops at the top. Entrepreneurship can be lonely and it confers a significant responsibility on founders that they often find difficult to delegate as businesses grow.

For our Prime Minister, her no-nonsense style arguably worked well as she led the Home Office, however she appears to have had difficulties translating that in her move to No 10, and publically displaying or developing the personality traits to convince the public to keep you there.

No matter how painful it is – be alert to how your own drive, skills, personality and outlook might inadvertently harm your ambitions and do something about it!

Make sure you have the right advice and listen to it

So what can you do? As a leader’s role changes they need to adapt and one of those is surrounding yourself with an advisory dream team to take you to the next level.

While we will never know what goes on behind closed doors, there did feel a moment in the campaign when the PM’s advisors (and their disagreements) were as high profile as her.

Let’s be clear (my favourite political phrase) – you need advisors to challenge you and to also have constructive, differing, points of view. Yes men give you nothing but a big ego, and probably a pre tax loss. BUT dissent in an intimate inner circle is unsettling and scale-ups can be pressure cooker environments where emotion, personal financial well-being and also vision are on the line.

Develop your team of managers and professional advisors carefully – don’t penalise them for telling you truths that are hard to hear - but ensure they share your ambition.

Have a vision and a purpose and communicate it well

A business without a clear vision for its future quickly loses sight of its purpose. A business without a sense of purpose quickly loses momentum. Through each stage of expansion, it’s crucial to communicate corporate values and the fundamental purpose of the business to those driving its growth, from senior management to junior staff.

Early in the campaign Mrs May could have taken a wrong turn when she moved from ‘Vote Conservative’ to ‘Vote for Theresa May’ based on a reading of her approval ratings. Deviations from core policies also eroded public confidence in her, ergo the party.

Most notable though was her absence in that seminal TV debate. The vacuum created was amply filled by her competition’s leaders, who took every opportunity to communicate their messages and question the leadership skills of the absent PM.

Theresa May’s 2017 campaign provides some poignant, and cautionary, management lessons to business leaders across the country. Leadership should always evolve, flexing according to the demands and requirements of a particular situation. Take stock of your leadership style now to save time and pain, or worse, the collapse of the support you once took for granted.

By necessity, this briefing can only provide a short overview and it is essential to seek professional advice before applying the contents of this article. This briefing does not constitute advice nor a recommendation relating to the acquisition or disposal of investments. No responsibility can be taken for any loss arising from action taken or refrained from on the basis of this publication. Details correct at time of writing.


This article was previously published on Smith & Williamson prior to the launch of Evelyn Partners.