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Do you need to be a good butcher?

founder experience management risk Feb 01, 2022

The dust is finally settling on Boris Johnson’s latest cabinet reshuffle. ‘Reshuffle’ hardly comes close to describing the exercise. It is not a parlour game of musical chairs, with ministers running around the cabinet table before diving into a different seat. It is a brutal and bloody affair, with careers ended abruptly (and sometimes unexpectedly). William Ewert Gladstone likened it to butchery, which is much more apt. In all, a third of the cabinet’s 30 roles changed, including 7 secretaries of state. There was the usual mix of big name demotions, medium name promotions and little name horizontal moves. The changes go beyond the cabinet into the ranks of junior ministers and under secretaries of state. The Institute of Government tracks changes every two hours. After two days, there were 5 prominent sackings, 22 new appointments, and only 4 people confirmed in post. There are still over 50 posts yet to announce. Expect more blood on the Downing Street carpet as the ‘stale, pale, and male’ brigade are cleared out to make way for a new wave of more diverse MPs.

This is the ultimate display of Prime Ministerial power. All governmental patronage is in their gift. It is one of the few unencumbered powers that they have. If PMs have to rule via the restrictive protocols of cabinet government, they should at least get to decide who is in the cabinet. A reshuffle also has wider benefits and plays a key part in determining the overall success of PMs. It reaffirms their authority, preserving their position from rivals; it helps keep troublesome colleagues in check; it helps them push through unpopular policy agendas; and it aids party management, providing a pathway for new talent. Above all, it is political gold, with incredible optics: the previously powerful are humbled, forced to take the Downing Street dance of death to learn their fate. Reshuffles are carefully orchestrated theatrical events, designed to maximise febrile media speculation.

Business leaders can only wonder at the upheaval this must cause to the effective management of government affairs. While no PM wants a truly incompetent cabinet that will damage their image and legacy, matters of performance are always secondary to politics. Ministers, especially potential rivals, are rarely given the jobs that best suit their talents. Reshuffles provide an opportunity to cull poor performers and freshen the talent pool, but this is often wasted because the same cycle repeats. This is in stark contrast to the US model of Government. Here the President can appoint experts from beyond the limited talent pool of elected representatives. As most appointments need to be approved by Congress in a tortuous political process, it makes little sense to regularly reshuffle the ministerial pack. 

Which begs the question, do reshuffles have any role in business? Usually founders are also the largest equity owners. They are not elected, but there is no doubt that they are the business equivalent of prime ministers. Even where there are multiple founders and stakeholders, there is usually a ‘first among equals’. In such circumstances, should you be following Boris’s lead and using reshuffles to keep the top team on its toes?

As a rule, business leadership teams follow the US rather than the UK model. You get experts in place and you hope they perform. You only remove them when it becomes clear they can’t, and they are unceremoniously replaced by someone better. Investing in people and creating a stable leadership team are two of the best policies that any founder can have. Great people and teams require psychological safety to perform. Living in fear of arbitrary change will only be counterproductive. But there are elements of reshuffling that still need to be considered…

Firstly, in the earliest stage of most businesses there is a need to multi-task. The number and range of jobs increases exponentially from the moment you start your business, but there is a strict economic limit on headcount. Everyone has to pitch in. Over time, roles become more specialised as technical experts can be brought in. In this early phase, you will learn a lot about your fellow founders, co-leaders and core staff (who will become the leaders of the future). Watch them closely, because the chances are there will be early indications that some people are either not going to excel in the role you assumed they would take, or demonstrate a greater capacity to excel in a different one. Share your observations. Talk to people about their experiences. Don’t be afraid to try people out in different roles. It is in everyone’s interests that long-term responsibilities remain fluid until you know there is a good fit for the business.

Once the composition of leadership teams has been decided, the merits of keeping them in place are manifold. Now you should be considering reshuffling responsibilities rather than people. Every leader should have a functional accountability, which is their core area of expertise. But they will also have extra discretionary responsibilities that they have picked up to help the business progress. These might be internal improvements, innovation initiatives or other ‘special’ projects. Think about Michael Gove, the new Housing Secretary with the added responsibility of saving the Union with Scotland. These discretionary responsibilities must always be given on the understanding they will be moved to better hands or someone with more capacity to make the progress you need. If you can ask someone to do something important for you, you can just as easily ask them to pass it on.

The third area relates to talent management, the equivalent of your junior ministers. Few people below the age of 30 know either what they want to do in life or what they are really good at. They simply haven’t had enough exposure to different experiences to be sure. It is natural for talent to be jealously guarded by those people who discover it. Who wants to lose their best team member? But talent optimisation is essential for business success. You must allow, encourage and enforce movement. If you don’t your best people may be poached by rivals who do offer the opportunities they seek. Try to get people working on different projects and in different roles, to understand where their talents lie. And don’t hesitate to re-engineer teams or departments if you think it will boost performance. Reviewing these quarterly will help create the protocol for doing so.

Clearly any reshuffling will require some diplomacy and management of your leadership team. It should understand the importance of talent optimisation and be proactively making suggestions. This is far more preferable to being forced into the destructive behaviour of prime ministerial blood-letting. Don’t be afraid to politely remind people who is in charge and who calls the shots.


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