For every business, there is a bottom line. You might launch the most praise-worthy products or garner appreciative column inches for your smart marketing, but if your share price is in freefall or you fail to turn a profit, the knives will be out quickly and mercilessly.
In the Covid-19 crisis, the British government can point to many mitigating factors: it was the first administration anywhere to approve a vaccine, its support for business has been swift, if decidedly patchy, and it has had to contend with a group of stakeholders (the public) who have proved reluctant to comply with the requirements of lockdown.
Even so, the metrics are appalling. When this article first went to press in our winter 2021 magazine issue, there had been more than 90,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the UK – the second highest toll in Europe per capita. That figure now sits at over 110,000.
More than 800,000 jobs have been lost in successive lockdowns and few economists believe the worst is behind us. While comparisons between the public and private sector can often be reductive, many business leaders have wondered over the past 12 months whether they could have performed better in prime minister Boris Johnson’s shoes. And how long would his leadership style and decision-making prowess have lasted in the average business?
Management Today assembled an expert panel of business leaders and advisors and asked them to judge the UK government’s coronavirus performance through the lens of corporate success. The roll out of the coronavirus vaccine has generally been seen as a success, but nevertheless their insights are both illuminating and, at times, depressing for the rest of us.
MARK BORKOWSKI – COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST; FOUNDER, BORKOWSKI PR AGENCY
This crisis has needed politicians to be bloody tough. You’ve got to deliver the facts and make people believe that we’re on a course and that “this is how it is going to be” and not flinch from that, which takes determination and direction.
We’ve seen a communication strategy with too much flip-flopping, too much leaking of information and a message that has been lacking in emotional intelligence. They’ve tried to bang ideas into soundbites that channel well through social media but this is too complex a situation for soundbites.
There’s been a lack of real purpose and also too much hope injected at the wrong times. The only one who has come through it with any credibility is Rishi Sunak.
A crisis will find you out. Sometimes you need to face your critics by being very well prepared, going into the worst possible interview and coming out virtually unscathed, but the government has run away from their biggest detractors.
There’s been blind panic occasionally and then rushing to judgment or making it up as they go along to deflect criticism. This just wouldn’t last in industry. If you were a chief executive, running a family business or FTSE 100 company, you would have had to fall on your sword by now because there’s a lack of credibility, but Boris is just too deep inside the bubble.
JUSTINE GREENING – FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR EDUCATION AND INTERNATIONAL DEVELOPMENT; FOUNDER, THE SOCIAL PLEDGE
Johnson’s challenge has been that there hasn’t always been a clear strategy in place, implementation of that strategy has been difficult and the government hasn’t always been able to communicate it effectively.
But it is not easy to compare being PM with being CEO. Imagine a company where every single employee thinks they will be the CEO in the relatively near future, where there’s no real organisational structure to any of the roles and where sometimes people don’t even agree on what products you’re selling.
No CEO would find themselves in the position where they’re having to deliver a running commentary on their strategy while they’re still constructing it.
It has not been really clear what the objective was in relation to Covid. At the start there was a very effective slogan that communicated what the lockdown was all about, but behind that there needed to be a strategy for bearing down not only on the virus, but on the wider challenges the country faces: a wider health crisis caused by the NHS focusing only on Covid, an education crisis and then an economic crisis.
That went well beyond snappy slogans. There were some decisions that were no doubt taken with the best of intentions but that with hindsight may have been handled more effectively at local level – for example, having a centralised Test and Trace system. I think what this has really shown is that government isn’t nimble enough to cope with the real-time decisions required by Covid.
The lesson is if you don’t have a strategy grounded in clear-cut measures you’re going to be taking on the ground, then don’t be surprised when you’re blown around by events. It’s the boring but important stuff that means change happens.
JULIAN RICHER – PHILANTHROPIST AND MANAGING DIRECTOR OF RICHER SOUNDS
I’m sure Boris is great fun, I’d enjoy going for a beer with him, but is he a proven leader? I haven’t seen much of that. He didn’t take the pandemic seriously enough at all at the beginning.
You have to be ruthless with your time so you can make the big decisions, but I keep seeing him going round factories flying his flag. An inability to admit mistakes has hurt the government’s strategy.
They would not admit PPE supply problems or that Test and Trace was behind. In a crisis you try 100 things before eventually the boat starts turning around. There is no shame in making mistakes. When you’re not honest about them, people stop trusting you and you don’t learn how you can improve.
They’ve also not brought everyone along with them. There has been a lack of fairness – for example, there was lots of support for people who were furloughed but very little for people who had lost their jobs. Whether intentionally or not, some of their policies have benefitted some people more than others. Ultimately, leaders are judged by their representatives because they can’t be everywhere all the time, and you’ve got to be very careful that accusations of cronyism or favouritism aren’t thrown at you.
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