Are there lessons from business for Theresa May?

If so, what can entrepreneurs can teach politicians?

Theresa May has been punished for what looks like cynical opportunism. Shakespeare summed it up well, with “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” quoth Albany in “King Lear”. Or perhaps you may prefer “Proud woman, dressed in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what she’s most assured” per Isabella in “Measure for Measure”.

Entrepreneurs, like prime ministers, need a robust strategy, with sharp-elbowed tactics to deliver it.   They need to be agile, imperceptibly shifting their balance as the situation develops.  However, you would be pushed to accuse Theresa May of being agile in her recent election campaign.

So what lessons could be learned from business to understand the present debacle and inform future performance?

Takeaway 1When entrepreneurs look at financial numbers, it is the trend that drives their actions rather than the absolute values.

The Tories’ assumptions about the polls were too heavily based on the absolute, hence they missed the rapidly rising Corbynista’s momentum.

Entrepreneurs anticipate, research and are not afraid to be contrarian.    They put little store by the wisdom of the herd (or the polls).

Entrepreneurs try to spot something that the rest of us cannot yet see even though often it may be hidden in plain sight.  When everyone can see it, it is the top of the market, and the worst time to buy.

The Tory 2:1 lead over Labour was the top of the market.  They should have been looking out for the trend of the polls. The sudden decline in their polling was not anticipated. This lack of agility meant they were slow to respond.

Takeaway 2All products have a lifecycle and past performance is no guide to future performance.  One must always be looking for new markets.

Smart entrepreneurs sniff the air, anticipating emerging trends, and never assuming that previous norms will hold true forever.  The Brexit vote alienated many young voters, who had shunned the ballot box in that vote.  Despite their lack of interest in politics, nevertheless, they remained aggrieved.

Young people get their inputs through social media, not the Daily Telegraph or Daily Mail.  Who knew?  Corbyn’s team did.  His aptly named Momentum team assiduously pumped social media.

The result was that Labour created a hitherto new market of voters, previously untapped.  This blindsided the Tories who seemed to have no positive message or delivery channel for this constituency.

Takeaway 3People buy people.  Perception is the only reality.  Some things do not work in theory but work in practice.

Some entrepreneurs can be geeky technicians who don’t speak much human.  Think Facebook or Google.  The product and cash flow speak for themselves.  Some entrepreneurs have a big personality and the numbers also add up.  Think Branson or Dyson.

A big personality and untested numbers will still attract investors because people buy into the personality.  Especially if the cover story seems superficially plausible.  Think De Lorean, Madoff or Corbyn?  Many fraudsters and dreamers share this profile.

This presidential-style approach works well for larger than life personalities like Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, but Theresa May is no President.

Serious by nature, she is the polar opposite of a big outgoing personality.  She lacks the charisma to warm up the voters. Likewise, she is no populist orator, she was the stealth PM, avoiding unscripted meetings with the public and the TV Leader’s debate.  She won her party’s nomination by keeping her head down whilst the more brazen candidates committed fratricide.

The adoption of a presidential persona, therefore, seems odd. The last PM to espouse a presidential style was Tony Blair, which left the British people distinctly underwhelmed.

Theresa May’s personality type gained public definition as evasive, wobbly and brittle.  Just as Corbyn was relaxing into his skin as the affable, honest, WYSIWYG man of the people.  People and especially the young bought into this.  How to pay for ending tuition fees or wiping out student loans was overlooked.  The shadows of Len McCluskey and the hard-left, and a dysfunctional front-bench were obscured in the soft focus on personality.

Takeaway 4Never use your customers as your QA department, it could be career-ending.

The “Dementia Tax” had its root in a brave attempt to monetise the ticking time bomb of care for the elderly.  There was little consultation with the grey hairs in the cabinet.  It was introduced with no marketing plan or thought as to how Labour might respond.  It had no positives for any class of voters but had a huge negative potential for many.  Why was it in?

Worse still, it immediately became toxic on the doorstep and was swiftly withdrawn.  Making things worse, was the cynical U-turn, when a fulsome mea culpa was needed.  Strong and stable was toast, replaced by weak and wobbly.

Entrepreneurs know buyers buy benefits, not features.  They continually test the market, making mistakes fast, so there is time to reshape and modify.  The dementia tax was rushed and not tested.  The benefits were poorly explained.  Key features were still in the design stage.  Its inclusion in the manifesto, therefore, was both a surprise and an own goal.

Takeaway 5 - The acid test of good customer service is your response when something goes wrong.

Theresa May’s Government wanted to focus on Brexit.  However, they said little about the need to promote business.  More surprisingly, they did not emphasise their second powerful suit, that it was all about the economy, stupid.  The belief that the debate could be restricted to Brexit was unrealistic.

In the event, Brexit was overshadowed by debate on the NHS and law and order, sidestepping the Brexit Maginot Line. The response to Grenfell and Windrush was similarly naïve and flat footed. With instant information and new uncontrolled information channels, the old paradigm is broken.

A business now has to be dynamic and adaptable.  Flexing and shifting continuously as it anticipates the market and competitor’s actions.  New markets, new threats and new opportunities are scanned for daily for the marginal gains which drive modern business performance.

The finely balanced Parliament with unwarranted influence from the DUP parliament will produce a coalescence of views.  Policy options will reduce to the points of common agreement.  The art of the possible with no option to follow one’s principles. The election began with two parties with clearly differentiated policies.  It will end being stunted by expediency. Seeking marginal gains will be the political order of the day.    Just like in business.