Lessons from The Iron Lady

With news in 2013 of Margaret Thatcher’s death we have since been bombarded with the inevitable biographies, reviews and assessments by the great and good on both the right and left sides of politics.

Margaret Thatcher was effectively a CEO of a UK PLC for nearly 12 years.

Whatever you think of what she did or didn’t do, that’s a long time to run any corporation.

So what can we in the business and HR leadership community learn from her time at the top about running a business?

Top 5 things she did that you should do:

1. Have a plan

– I don’t know anyone who can successfully complete any task without knowing where they’re going, how they will get there and what it will look like when they’ve finished. Sometimes it’s easier to do this back to front i.e. set out your goals clearly, decide on priorities and work out what you need to start with, to end up where you want to be.

2. Be flexible

– this doesn’t contradict point one because no-one knows what the future holds.  As long as your goal remains constant then you may need to adjust to changing conditions along the way.  You can still get there but maybe via a slightly different route.

3. Communicate, communicate

– tell everyone (and I mean everyone from the top to the bottom) what you’re doing, how you’re doing, what’s going right, what’s going wrong; you get the picture.  There are some things (like national security) that you won’t want to discuss but if you’re a good and regular communicator then people will understand when sometimes you’re not so forthcoming.

4. Stick to your guns

– this is different to having a plan and reflects the need for the CEO to have a personal code which drives both his plan and his behaviours.  You can’t really deal with some of the difficult decisions you’ll face unless you have a clear understanding of what you believe to be right and that you’re prepared to demonstrate those very day.

5. Know your business

– you don’t have to know every detail of what your business is doing but you need to know enough to understand where the risks and rewards are.  You’ll have an army of people to give you data, so that’s not the problem; but you need to give them confidence that you’re able to make the best decisions based on that data.  That is why you are the CEO.

Top 5 things she didn’t do that you should do:

1. Listen to advice

– you don’t always know best however much you think you do, and getting someone else’s perspective can point you in the right direction and quickly.  Not listening seems to happen more frequently as you climb the corporate ladder or if you spend too long at the top.

2. Choose the best people to work with

– always, always, always work with the best people you can find.  They’ll improve the performance of your business and improve your performance as well.  Don’t hire “yes men” who won’t challenge you because they won’t challenge anybody else.  The best way to stay at the top of your game is to work with people who will keep you there.  This isn’t as scary as it sounds as those working for you will, by and large, respond positively to your support and encouragement.

3. Don’t divide to rule

– keeping everyone on-side is crucial particularly when times are tough.  This doesn’t mean you give way to small interest groups (unless you have to) but suggests the way to keep everyone together is not to split them apart.

4. Don’t become a one issue CEO

– too much focus on one issue can lead to a disastrous loss of a grip on the business as a whole.  You will have a list of priorities from your planning session and try to devote a reasonably even amount of time to each.  Events will dictate the rise and fall in importance of these issues and you should respond as required.

5. Ensure your succession

– or at least consider it.  Career planning isn’t just for the juniors in your company but for everyone.  I recognise that in many cases who succeeds you is a matter for others to decide, but there is nothing wrong with preparing a couple of good candidates those others might want to consider.  I’m not talking blatant nepotism but the careful nurturing of some likely successors.

Remember, success as a CEO is not just about longevity but what you do in the time you have.