The forthcoming general election is being interpreted as a ‘second referendum’. And in many ways it is. Despite valiant attempts by parts of the media to shine a light on other areas of policy, there is no doubt that Brexit will dominate discussions and be the primary influence on voting intentions right up to 8 June.
While the election's outcome will likely shape Britain's future Brexit talks, it is important that businesses do not allow themselves to become distracted, to hold back from action until the new government is decided. With the triggering of Article 50 last month we are probably already past the point of no return. And even though political negotiations are unlikely to start in earnest before the autumn, the business sector needs to start work now to find the opportunities in Brexit.
First, we must be honest about the status quo. Many may not have wished the UK to leave the European Union, but that does not mean that life within it was perfect. Business had arguably become complacent. Many business leaders have been too content with things as they are and we have lost some of the entrepreneurial drive that creates jobs and spots new opportunities. With Brexit looming, businesses need to rediscover this drive if they are to succeed.
Fundamentally, this will come down to three things: leadership, management and proactiveness.
Leadership is vital. In a changing landscape, businesses should not allow themselves to be passive ‘victims’ of external forces. New relationships need to be developed and nurtured in markets worldwide. Businesses that have sat back in established markets must become adaptive and flexible. New work must be created, with new people, in new markets.
For leaders to have the time and space to look outward and seize the opportunities that present themselves, they need to have full confidence in their managers. Many of the issues that Brexit will create are managerial – making sure the right people are in the right place, redesigning supply chains (especially if barriers to the free movement of materials threaten just-in-time manufacturing), reskilling and upskilling the workforce, creating new agreements and contracts, ensuring compliance with new rules. These activities need to be delegated to highly skilled and effective managers so that the business leaders can concentrate on driving the wider strategy. The UK faces an urgent need to build its managerial capability if it is to succeed.
Finally – business needs to be proactive. Action is required, and in my opinion much sooner than many business leaders currently intend. Waiting for the results of the general election or for the final Brexit deal to become clear will be too late. There are steps that should be taken much sooner.
At a very practical level, sales budgets for the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Americas will be higher than for Europe. It’s relatively easy to sell to markets that are on your doorstep and with which you have much in common – less easy to sell to those that are further away both geographically and culturally. In addition, recruitment of people with relevant experience in these markets will be critical to expanding successfully into them. Companies could also be proactive in researching mergers and acquisitions targets, and reviewing their supply chains and sourcing of products.
To shake off any lingering anxiety, it is worth reflecting that the UK has faced disruption before. The City of London has endured a civil war, fire, plague, two world wars, as well as economic bubbles and recessions. But it is still here. It has an innate resilience that we need to build on and find anew.
We know how easy it is to talk ourselves into a depression – but this is a time to accentuate the positive. It is not a time to be trapped in anxiety, but a time to take seriously the challenge of transformational leadership.
It is about describing a vision for the future and then moving towards it.
Isn’t that what leadership is fundamentally about?
Dr Andrew White, associate dean for executive education and corporate relations at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford