If you don’t break it first, you don’t have to fix it
Bold, significant change is required, and we pretty much all know what has to be done. We don’t need a vote first
David Cameron resigned on June 24 2016 following the marginal (52%) popular vote in favour of Britain leaving the EU, acknowledging the will of the people who had voted against what he had once somewhat understatedly said would cause “economic self-harm” to his country. That referendum had divided the nation then, and it remains divided today. It was a mistake. It will never repair.
Less than a month after his resignation, his successor, Theresa May, promised a “bold, new, positive role for Britain” as “we leave the EU”.
The complexity of the task wasn’t obvious then. It is now. As May struggles about in the treacle of the mess she took on, the “I told you so” people are having a field day. It’s hard to imagine that her speech’s ambitions will happen, or that she’ll even survive.
The leader of the opposition in the UK is making a meal of it, seeking to regain some of his lost popularity on a promise of radical transformation. Few parties nowadays seem to advance beyond criticism politics. It seems any political promise can hold water when incumbent leadership is in trouble.
Across the channel, the French president is likewise trying to take centre stage in the Brexit conditions debate, to shore up his dwindling popularity. The challenge is for the UK to try to get some wins out of a lost situation. Everyone can see that and no one in Europe will let it happen. Everyone enjoys a loser? It seems crazy for the UK to have agreed a deal without knowing the terms, and then seeking to get advantage, off the back foot.
A CEO’s term in office is not judged by what is happening while he or she is at the helm, but what the state of the entity turns out to be once they’ve left. CEOs who harvest more than they plant get found out, in time.
When you take over a mess, there’s nothing popular or easy about what must be done to fix it. Staying with a mistake is just silly, even if the only reason you got the job in the first place was because the person before you made the mistake.
Brexit should be reversed. Even though it’s more than two years after the initial decision, it would only take another referendum to reverse it. Why don’t they do it? This time, though, be clear on the conditions of the alternative. It is common knowledge that the first loss is always the least loss, but how do you deal with a popular mistake?
It is not the role of leadership to carry out the mandate of popular mistakes, but rather to guide the company (or the country) along a path towards considered prosperity, however difficult the first few steps may be.
In a democracy, you have to get the majority of the popular vote to get to lead in the first place – therein lies the rub. It’s much harder to inherit the top job because of a mistake of your predecessor than to get it in support of policies you put forward as your solution in the first place, which you believe in, and planned.
Whether it works or not (as it didn’t for May) new political leaders must get a fresh mandate and be able to choose a new team, beyond just dealing with a mess. The only latitude you get to do this is at the beginning of your term.
Control-Alternate-Delete is sometimes the only way out. Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken is not nearly as important as fix it if it is.
The hard stuff, the first difficult steps in a turnaround strategy, or the reconstitution of the team, must be done at the earliest opportunity. The new direction almost always needs a long time to prove itself.
We have too often sought quick, popular wins at the ultimate expense of more thorough long-term strategy. The first few gym sessions are the most painful, with very little obvious to show for it, but they are the foundations on which the sustainability of the plan rests.
We’ve got some mistakes to rectify, some big economic gaps to close and we won’t achieve it politely, incrementally. Bold, significant change is required, and we pretty much all know what has to be done. Let’s neither wait for a popular endorsement, nor continue with a proven mistake. Let’s not put it to the vote, let’s just get on with it.
Mark Barnes is CEO of the Post Office.