The leaders of some organisations wrongly believe that they can swim under the radar of politicians. They are being naïve especially when they complain about political attention. All organisations, and the individuals who lead them, can find themselves subject to political scrutiny.
The best approach is for all organisations to consider that politicians could take an interest in them. It is a day-to-day operational risk. That risk may be higher for some than others but is there for everyone. I recently listened to an interview with Stephen Hester, former chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland on a Financial Times podcast. He complained that having to deal with the politics took his attention away from the more important issues of running a business.
Such an attitude may be ‘pure’ in a business sense but does not reflect the modern reality. The idea that business operates in one sphere and politics another, is wrong.
Critically, the political spotlight is never far away and never really goes away. There are a number of reasons why this is the case from the rise of social media through to demands for transparency and a greater interest in the societal impacts of organisations across the environment etc. Critically there are a diminishing number of areas where politicians can really prove that they have power and worth. Why bother with electing governments when they can’t really do anything…? Comment and intervention in the operations of an organisation can be a way of demonstrating that power and worth.
The realities include:
- A personal life is in the spotlight as well – it is not just business decision and the performance of an organisation that will be considered fair game but personal lives as well. There are very few areas that the media or politicians will not go – relationships, dress sense, schooling, tax and pay.
- Politicians know the value of a reputation as much as any business leader – if a government can secure the aim they want through constant comment they will use that weapon. MPs may decide that a Select Committee session will work. They may want an apology, a change in direction or a recognition that old behaviours were unacceptable. Think carefully about their motivations when deciding on your response.
- The spotlight is not fleeting – once you have been under the spotlight, it will never move far away. These are not one-off events. In his interview, Hester seemed to infer that there was an intense period of scrutiny which then passed. It may have passed for him but for others in the organisation it will have continued. Special advisers, the media, individual MPs could all still be very active even if the Chief Executive does not appreciate that.
- The spotlight does impact on all operations – it will take time and effort to deal with the politics but that should not be considered to be a distraction from more important business operations, it is an important business operation. That is a complaint that you often hear and is made by Hester in the interview as well. If the politics are treated as ‘second class’ to other aspects then it risks not being dealt with effectively. That, in itself, risks more political attention. Politicians like to be taken seriously!
- Do not forget the public – the reason why politicians often get involved is because of some sort of public outcry. They react because otherwise they could be seen as ineffective and risk their election prospects. The same public could be an organisation’s customers, suppliers, workers, funders or donors. So the main attention may be political but should be seen in the context of effective engagement with a range of your key stakeholders.
Leaders should not be blinkered to the modern reality of running any organisation. That means knowing where and when the political attention could come. It also means not treating it as an irrelevance or a distraction. It is a part of day-to-day operations.