Pilita Clark: Lessons in office politics from ambitious Tories

Being careful about openly backing a favourite applies to politics and office life

Theresa May, the departing prime minister, wanted a job for which she was manifestly unsuited. She was wooden, robotic, secretive, unimaginative and  would have struggled to lead at any time. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Theresa May, the departing prime minister, wanted a job for which she was manifestly unsuited. She was wooden, robotic, secretive, unimaginative and would have struggled to lead at any time. Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

 

As the number of British Conservative party politicians jostling to be the UK’s next prime minister surged to double digits last week, one MP issued an edict to the long shots crowding the field.

“Show some self-restraint,” said the fogeyish Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg. “Don’t think about putting down a marker. Don’t think about applying for a post in the cabinet. Think about the national and the party interest and the crisis that we are in and the need to settle this reasonably soon.”

This was striking advice, even for the peculiar Mr Rees-Mogg, a man who once took his nanny on the campaign trail; named his sixth child Sixtus and only posted his first comment on Twitter in 2017, in Latin.

It was also dead wrong, especially when translated to the workplace. Comparing a political contest with what happens in ordinary offices has obvious limits. Few organisations follow the model of the Guardian newspaper, where staff are allowed a vote on new editors.

Applying for a job is an excellent way to raise your profile

Yet the Tory leadership battle does demonstrate several important rules of office politics, starting with Mr Rees-Mogg. The reason for his lordly instruction was clear: he is backing the Tory frontrunner, Boris Johnson. The sooner the race is cleared of irksome rivals the better.

Promotion

But his remarks underline why it is almost always a good idea to go for a promotion at work, even if the chances of success seem improbable.

Applying for a job is an excellent way to raise your profile or, as Mr Rees-Mogg put it, put down a marker for future jobs. Managers who might never have heard of you see that you exist and learn that, as far as you are concerned, you are leadership material. If anyone ever asks me whether they should apply for a job, I invariably suggest they go ahead.

There is a risk of minor humiliation. But that is usually outweighed by benefits, including the chance to get the attention of important managers if you make it to a job interview.

That leads to a second important rule highlighted by the Tory contest: it is hard to overprepare for an interview.

Consider Dominic Raab, another prominent leadership contender. Days before formally entering the race, the 45-year-old devout Brexiter made an abrupt pitch for the working woman’s vote. The law should be changed to protect women from redundancy when pregnant or on maternity leave, he wrote in a newspaper article that also lamented the gender pay gap and urged more support for fathers so they could help out with childcare.

This was the same Mr Raab who complained in 2011 that men were getting a “raw deal” and that feminists were “obnoxious bigots”, a move that earned him a well-publicised rebuke from the then minister for women, Theresa May.

Awkward grin

You might therefore have thought he would be more than ready for a TV interview last Sunday, where he was asked if he still stood by his comments.

Instead, an awkward grin spread across Mr Raab’s face as he said he was still opposed to “double standards and hypocrisy” in the debate on equality, but really did believe in that maternity leave reform.

Aligning yourself with a star is no guarantee of success

His performance underlines another principle that applies to both politics and office life: be careful about openly backing a favourite for the top job.

Aligning yourself with a star is no guarantee of success. With luck, your candidate will be victorious and your loyalty will be rewarded with promotion, or at least a reputation for king-making. Yet every leader must please an assortment of constituencies that will not necessarily include faithful foot soldiers. Worse, your candidate might do what so many Tory front-runners have done in the past and fail to win at all.

Robotic

Finally, there is one thing all aspiring leaders should know but very often do not. They must understand their weaknesses more than their strengths. One of the enduring questions about Mrs May, the departing prime minister, is why she wanted a job for which she was so manifestly unsuited. Wooden, robotic, secretive, unimaginative, she would have struggled to lead at any time, let alone when the country was in the grip of the divisive morass that is Brexit.

Mrs May will be remembered for many things. But in offices and parliaments alike, she will always be the embodiment of exactly how not to lead. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

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