Bringing politics to the boardroom

Australia's corporate leaders have a lot to learn from politicians, who must deal with a greater number of issues and stakeholders.

The Australian

With the parliamentary year over and the business year trundling on, there is common refrain from the boardroom table: “why don’t politicians take a leaf out of our book -- apply what we do in the market to the electorate, run the country like a business?”

It’s true that politicians and political operators can learn from business, but my invariable response is that business can often learn more from them.

I don’t seek to apologise for our political class but, put simply, politics is harder. It’s more complex, with a greater number of issues and stakeholders.

Just compare the few high-­profile issues the typical business faces to the economy, public ­finances, road and rail, immigration, the health service, schools and universities, defence, law and order, and whatever the latest event or calamity happens to be.

Modern politicians must be across all this, whether it’s within their purview or not. Everything they do in these areas has real ­repercussions, often with billions of dollars and thousands of ­people’s futures at stake.

And the political class must ­satisfy a vast array of divergent interests. Business serves its customers and answers to its shareholders, but everyone is a paying customer of governments and they all have voting rights.

Like business, each party has its staff and a board; but also a heterogeneous parliamentary wing; local, state and federal tiers; not to mention local branches and affiliated organisations full of opinionated members. Conflicts abound.

This is before you encounter the bureaucracy needed to enact your decisions, the media carrying your message, the donors who try to help make up your mind, and the lobbyists who try to change it.

To add to this complexity, the stage on which all this plays out is dynamic, high-profile and competitive in the extreme.

Each of the above issues is in a constant state of flux. There are no quiet periods, no times to take stock. This means that politicians need to make a lot of decisions and take them quickly, regardless of the risk of getting it wrong (they sometimes do).

When such decisions affect a great number of people in myriad ways it’s not surprising they ­permeate the media cycle. Each success and each misstep is up there in lights.

And regardless of which political cloth you are cut from, there is always at least one opponent gunning for you. They need your market share, pure and simple; there is no diversification or growth into other markets. Politics is like business on a cocktail of steroids and amphetamines. That’s why it’s such a hothouse of new skills and ideas. Those who are ineffective or do not innovate will quickly fall foul of natural selection.

I have been fortunate enough to work in business and politics. I have seen politics done well and done badly, and here are some of the basic lessons business can learn.

First and foremost, you must stand for something. If you don’t know what you stand for -- a core set of values and vision, rather than ideology -- then you will not make consistent decisions, and nobody else will know what you stand for either.

Your value proposition should be of relevance to your audiences and be differentiated from your competitors, but it must be credible and authentic. You must live your values consistently and energetically.

And the way you live them is important. In politics everything is a campaign; and I mean everything. If you treat every project, every task, every issue as a means to reach a goal you will get there sooner and more effectively.

To get there you need to decide on a strategy and stick to it, ­regardless of what others dictate. The short-term tactics may change, but the strategy cannot. Sometimes a quick decision based on your strategic direction and good process is better than no decision, even if it’s only 80 per cent right.

This strategy is so critical you need to base it on the best information. This means conducting regular research that tells you what’s coming over the horizon and what to do about it.

Without this you are flying blind; with it you will know your strengths and weaknesses, the opportunities and threats. Play to your strengths by framing debates in your favour. Neutralise negatives quickly, or attempt to talk about them on your terms. Determine who your targets are, listen to them and find out what makes them tick. Yes, you must win over swing voters or new customers, but don’t ignore your base. If you lose those loyal followers you’ll lose market share and activists; if you keep them happy at least you’ll never go backwards.

Communicate to your audiences with relevance and clarity.

No organisation exists in isolation, so know your competition and know them well. You should be able to use your actions to contrast against their weaknesses, and should anticipate and be ready for their countermoves.

Lastly, no matter how competent an operator or leader you are you must surround yourself with the best talent to achieve all this. Business, like politics, is a team sport: it’s too hard to be done alone.

Jim Reed is the director of research and strategy at CrosbyTextor.

This article was first published in The Australian. Reproduced with permission.