Avoiding early exit: leadership tips for Theresa May

Written by
James Brook

19 Jul 2016

19 Jul 2016 • by James Brook

Key differences from past and present

Theresa May, little known to many of us, has been thrust into the role as PM in a way that few people would have predicted, even May herself. Although not a lot is known about the way she will approach her leadership role as PM, key differences from the outgoing PM, David Cameron, are already evident.

Cameron was a good relationship builder and surrounded himself by a close group of advisers he knew well and trusted based on past experiences at schools and university, the so-called ‘Cameroons’. Instead, May appears more inclusive and intent on building a diverse group of ministers in her cabinet. While both are believers in a modern and progressive type of conservatism, May appears to be both more naturally empathetic and compassionate than Cameron, Her inaugural speech after her appointment suggested she is very in touch with the mood of the more disenchanted parts of society – those who are struggling on low incomes and feel neglected by Westminster.

While Cameron was decisive and confident in his approach, perhaps even overly hasty and rash on occasion, May appears more considered and reflective in her decision style. She has a reputation as the quiet woman of British politics, but is a doer who achieves results with little fuss. She managed to stay out of the referendum fray, perhaps indicating her inner conflict over the pros and cons of remaining.

Like Cameron, she appears to have strong opinions and the courage to stand by these; however, her more guarded, inclusive approach means she is likely to seek broader counsel and avoid making rash decisions, something Cameron struggled with on occasion.

For May, or any new leader, the first 90 days are crucial and we would offer the following tips to help her optimise your strengths and impact:

Provide clear, positive direction

May has got off to a great start by starting to outline a clear and positive vision of what post Brexit UK could look like, including the idea of strength in unity across the different parts of the UK and the diverse people and communities served by Westminster. Unlike outgoing leaders such as Cameron, Osbourne and Farage who led campaigns based on fear and threats, May is building a positive, galvanising vision for the country that the vast majority of people can connect with. This overarching and compelling vision is crucial to build hope, optimism and positive energy to work together to find solutions to problems and challenges at a time of great uncertainty and transformation. It invites and empowers diverse people with different needs, aspirations, backgrounds and values to engage with the vision and build bridges rather than walls. 

Surround yourself with people with different strengths and perspectives

Like Cameron, many leaders hire in their own image and end up with an ‘in-group’ who are very similar to them in values, beliefs, perspectives and background. However, this bias, which is often sub-conscious, results in an elite group of decision-makers with a narrowed perspective. The ‘out-group’ has little voice and eventually becomes frustrated and demotivated. To avoid these challenges, leaders can be more inclusive in the way they build their teams. They should surround themselves with people who are different and have a diverse range of strengths, perspectives and experience, ensuring everyone has time and space to input into decision-making.   

Have the courage and confidence to use and optimise your strengths fully

Like May, leaders all have key strengths that they should ensure they understand and optimise fully in the way they approach their role and deliver the vision. Discovering what these strengths are, as well as areas of weakness and risk, is a key task for any leader. Only once they understand their own strengths and how they will use these to deliver success for the organisation will they know what areas to delegate to others. For example, as a tough and courageous negotiator, May should be extensively involved in Brexit negotiations to ensure the best deal for the UK. However, she might need to call on people who are more creative and enthusiastic than she is as these don’t appear to be standout strengths and will doubtless be required in her new role to navigate the myriad of challenges the country faces.