BQ Newsletter

Ballot box to boardroom

Friday 16 March 2012 12:00

Andrew Mernin

Alastair Campbell explains what business leaders can learn from the strategy which for so long defined British politics.

TONY Blair is about to face a frosty reception at the annual TUC conference in Brighton. Standing on the sidelines with his entourage of red ties, he gets word that an aircraft has hit the World Trade Centre. Nothing of the scale is known. “The first decision we had to make,” says Alastair Campbell “was whether to go ahead with the speech.”

The horror which unfolded in New York in the minutes that followed ultimately made Blair’s decision for him. And everything that the PM told the nation that day laid the foundations for the government’s national security strategy from that point on. For Campbell, though, much can be learned by business leaders from such pressure points at Number 10.

The former press secretary, who was there at the dawn of New Labour, sees parallels between the way decisions are made amid the thunder of politics and in the steely setting of the boardroom. Campbell, who now calls himself a writer, communicator and strategist, told a room full of mostly business people this week about the techniques that drove a fresh-faced, but deceptively ruthless, Edinburgh lad into power.

Such techniques that, in hindsight, he says are perhaps applicable to life in business. Since the theme of the day is decision making, he recalls his toughest decision yet – leaving Fleet Street for life on Downing Street.

“I knew in my gut I was going to say yes but when Tony asked me I then had to analyse it against all sorts of things. My partner didn’t want me to do it, nor did my parents or most of my friends. Neil Kinnock said I’d be ruining my life.”

We know what happened next. Campbell wasn’t bothered about the doubts of others just as Blair had no qualms about Campbell’s past problems with drink or his much-publicised nervous breakdown.

But beneath the life-changing decision a strategy was forming which would eventually shape the outcome of every dilemma facing Campbell and his communications team.

“I call it OST; Objective Strategy Tactics. If you’re involved in a project or campaign, that’s the order that things should go. Always ask yourself, what the objective is first. Don’t dive in, take a step back and work out what you’re trying to achieve, then you work out the strategy and go all tactical.”

Don’t get it? Here’s how Bill Clinton put it into practice on one of his toughest days at the White House.

“On the day the Starr report was published [revealing details of numerous alleged misdemeanours to the world including the Monica Lewinsky affair] he was on the phone to Tony Blair talking about decommissioning Soviet nuclear weapons.” Campbell subsequently asked Clinton how he had managed to focus on his role despite the great threat to his power posed by the scandal.

“He said he had a very simple objective – survival. His strategy was to go out every day and focus on those things that only the American President could make a difference to and his tactic was to make sure the American people knew that’s what he was doing.”

Campbell’s next rule of leadership harvested from his time at the heart of government is: “It’s not a strategy until it’s written down.”

He also says: “The best strategies can be written down as a word, phrase, paragraph or book.”

The inception of New Labour is an obvious embodiment of this theory. For some time before the biggest rebranding in British political history, the phrase was already being discussed in Labour’s power circle. Then came its unveiling as a conference backdrop. “We were already talking about New Labour so I just thought, why don’t we just say it?

“Developing strategy is about having arguments not avoiding them. Strategy is the place where you make the decisions that you then write down and say, ‘that’s what we’ve achieved.’”

Campbell draws inspiration from sport, or more precisely, Burnley FC, and, as he says, team work is as important in politics and business as it is on the football field.

“Strategy is a team game and works best when everyone from the reception to the boardroom knows and supports it.

“A lot of high level people in business pay sufficient regard to how their organisation feels about what they’re doing. Internal communications is hugely important. The guy on reception or people on the shop floor represent your organisation so the best way to make them feel part of the team is to tell them the strategy.

“I remember on the campaigns I was involved in, one of the fist things I said was ‘this isn’t a campaign unless the bus driver is happy'."

The importance of every team member believing in the common strategy is something that stuck with Campbell long after his days on the Labour campaign trail and was at the centre of the Blair decision making machine.

“Tony took his decision making process very seriously. Over the weekend, he’d be having these rolling circular conversations and he would phone Gordon Brown, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, me and his agent in Sedgefield.

“So I would be going to the match or taking the kids to the cinema and he’d be calling every two hours and you’d basically be having the same conversation as you’d had before. And in between I’d be talking to other people to see what they were thinking, but I knew what he was doing.

“He was testing his own analysis against other people’s analysis and then reflecting and ruminating and allowing a decision to be made. He was just absorbing other people’s thoughts the whole time and allowing them to affect his decision.”

Clearly most business leaders would be risking the morale of their workforce if they were constantly on the other end of the phone line to the subordinates on a Sunday afternoon. But Campbell’s point is that dilemmas should be allowed to breathe before decisions are made.

“Good strategy is based on a thorough analysis and understanding,” he says.

Alastair Campbell was speaking at an event hosted by Newcastle Science City in Newcastle City Library as part of its ‘The Science of...’ series. Joining Campbell on stage was Professor Kenny Coventry, professor of cognitive science at Northumbria University, who explained the science behind decision making.