Four Ways Business People Fail in Politics

Last Updated Apr 9, 2010 5:41 AM EDT

The term 'professional politician' ranks alongside 'professional foul' as an insult to professionals. But, would it improve UK politicians' ability to govern if they were more like their business counterparts?

There are a number of reasons why behaviours that are considered valuable in commerce just don't fit on the hustings or in the House.

The skills and experience of the professional politician tends to be very narrow. David Cameron has lived his life on the Thames: born in London, educated at Eton and Oxford before doing some PR in London and going into Westminster to represent Witney.

Cameron is not untypical of the political class and his background explains why politicians appear to know so little about the world of business.
Even when politicians have some business experience, it tends to be minimal: Patricia Hewitt was revered for her business experience. She was as a Librarian at what is now Accenture. I was a partner there and did not even know we had a library. So we have ministers running departments with billions of pounds of budget and tens of thousands of staff who have never had profit and loss responsibility and never managed more than a few staff in their private office.

Perhaps the last person to truly succeed in business and politics was Michael Heseltine.

So we may say we want politicians with more business (and other) experience, but either we get people with joke experience (librarian at Accenture) or they have real experience and they fail to shine. There are some obvious reasons why business experience does not translate into political success:

  1. Media scrutiny. Whisper it quietly but many boardrooms are far more dysfunctional than Westminster. There are cock ups, confusion, arguments, backstabbing , huge amounts of tedium and occasional crises. Within a firm, these melodramas may be the source of gossip by the water cooler, but they are not subject to forensic media analysis on the evening news. Most business people simply would not survive the media scrutiny that politicians endure.
  2. Risk. Because of the media scrutiny, most politicians are deeply risk averse: one dumb comment can end their career. And yet they are always being asked to speak in public. The result is the sort of evasive double speak which gives all politicians a bad name. Business people claim to like plain speaking (except when explaining a set-back in their area). Plain speaking in politics leads to a short career -- ask Frank Field. He was told to "think the unthinkable" on welfare reform by Tony Blair. So he did, and he was fired.
  3. Consensus. Top business leaders revel in decision making, Businesses are essentially unelected dictatorships: there may be consultation but your idea can not get voted out by your peers (fellow MPs). Curiously, in middle management consensus is a vital survival skill. If you want politicians with transferable skills from the business sector, look to middle management, not top management.
  4. Politicians need to be liked. They need votes and popularity. Business leaders know that seeking popularity leads to weakness: you never make the tough decisions. Business leaders follow Machiavelli's advice: "it is better to be respected than to be loved, because love is fickle". If you do not need votes, it is easier to be tough. Only a few conviction politicians, like Margaret Thatcher, had the courage to go down the route of building respect not love: as a result she remains a divisive figure who is loved and loathed in equal amounts.
As business people we develop our careers by building our craft skills: accounting, consulting, settlements, selling, marketing, IT or management itself. We all benefit from having a hinterland of wider interests and experience as well.

And, perhaps that is all we should demand of our politicians: they need to build their craft skills and ideally have a hinterland of wider experience as well. And if they can stay honest, competent and not corrupt, that will be a bonus.

(Pic: didbygraham cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership