Where next after Westminster?

Who remembers where they were on this day fourteen years ago? I do, because on the morning of 11th May 2010, more than a decade of Labour rule came to an end, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition began, and some Ministers who had lost their jobs began coming to me for advice on what to do next. Many of these politicians had been in politics for most of their lives, but wanted to take the plunge and cross the floor into the commercial world. What was I to do with them?

In recent weeks, I’ve been reflecting on this time. Around the world, many countries are gearing up for major elections: India is currently in the midst of a six-week national vote, the US presidential election is happening in November, and in the UK, we could be called to the polls for a general election at any point between now and the end of the year. As in 2010, there could soon be a lot of politicians suddenly out of jobs ringing me for advice. What will I tell them this time round?

Because what can politicians bring to the world of business? There are some clear parallels. A CEO and a politician both need expert communication skills, to be adept at complex stakeholder management, and to be able to inspire others and lead from the front. But really, a politician and a CEO are two very different jobs.

In the UK, we could be called to the polls for a general election at any point between now and the end of the year.

Of course, there are some instances where politicians have transitioned successfully into the world of business, and vice versa (but don’t be fooled, it often does not work). Before being elected as the Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands in 2017, Andy Street was MD at John Lewis. Chuka Umunna, now Head of EMEA ESG & Green Economy Investment Banking at JP Morgan, spent his early career in politics. Perhaps the most high-profile example is Nick Clegg, who was appointed as Vice-President for Global Affairs and Communications at Meta in 2018 after nearly two decades in politics, five as deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government.

Now living between California and the UK, Nick Clegg’s move into a public affairs role has allowed him to apply his policy-making skills in a commercial environment. Cleverly, Peter Mandelson, who was Secretary of State between 2009 and 2010, has forged a similarly successful path, leveraging his influence and expertise to advise organisations in industry. Going the other way, probably the most successful entrepreneur was Michael Heseltine, who ran his own company and founded the media business Haymarket, before being elected as MP in 1966, and eventually making a play for PM against Margaret Thatcher.

There’s certainly an entrepreneurial flair required from MPs that can translate well in business, especially if politicians go on to launch their own advisory firm or commercial project. “Being a politician is very individualistic,” said one leader, whose career has straddled Westminster and commercial leadership, “As an MP, you’re essentially self-employed, and always in competition with others within your own party for the best jobs.”

But this same individualism is just one of the reasons why there are no ex-Ministers who have made it to CEO of a FTSE100 company. In my experience, both political and business leaders underestimate what it takes to win on the other side of the fence. What might seem like obvious similarities in leadership requirements are in fact executed in fundamentally different ways.

“A politician and a CEO are striving for different things,” another leader offered when we spoke this week. “A CEO is looking to deliver results. Their objective is clear: to bring about positive change in an organisation, by growing the bottom line, improving culture, and delivering shareholder returns. A CEO knows what they have to achieve and has the authority to do so.

“By contrast, a politician’s objective is to stay in power, or to get elected. This requires a much more nuanced approach. And a Prime Minister, unlike a CEO, must constantly work on building a coalition of people around them.”

Decision-making therefore looks very different in business to politics. In the commercial world, senior executives make decisions at pace, constantly executing strategies and communicating them to their teams and customers. In politics – especially when approaching a general election – not acting can be a smart political move, designed to retain as many voters as possible.

There’s also the notion of transparency and communication. In business, especially in the consumer sector, communicating openly and frequently with colleagues and customers is paramount. When things go wrong, most consumer-facing leaders know that addressing the issue, apologising, and moving on is the best way to build customer trust. In politics, it’s a different ballgame. Speaking openly can trigger damaging shifts in public perception.

It will be interesting to see what plays out in Westminster over the next few months, and what Ministers decide to do next. Certainly, there’s much to be said for exploring new professional avenues. I’m reminded of an event hosted by MBS – eight years ago now – during which Rio Ferdinand and Justin King shared their thoughts about how to reinvent your career after years at the top of your industry. They both spoke about their drive, their curiosity, and their need for challenge.

This year, when the phone rings post-election, I will be at the ready and look forward to playing my bit in helping a new batch of candidates to cross the floor.

Moira.Benigson@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup