22 Mar 2018

It was the picture of the Queen and her three-bar electric heater that did it. There she was, welcoming Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to Buckingham Palace – and behind her in the fire place was a heating contraption of the type that many of us have not seen since the 70s. To cap it all, just one of the three bars was on.‎ Such frugality! Such authenticity! Yet again, she made you proud to be British.

‎As it happens, the photo appeared in the UK’s national prints just as I finished viewing the Queen’s biopic, aka Netflix’s The Crown. With its repeated scenes surmising what happens when the reigning Monarch holds her weekly audience with the prime minister, it was hard for some of us corporation-watchers to avoid drawing Chairman-CEO comparisons.

Our premiers – the national CEOs – may have been a mixed bunch. But i‎n Her Majesty, the Board of UK plc has been blessed with the greatest chair‎person imaginable.

So what can actual and aspiring corporate chairs learn from our second Elizabeth the Great? My own little list follows.

  • Be authentic: Ambition goes hand-in-glove with the personality of anyone likely to make it as far as chairing the Board of a major corporation. A successful chair needs to carry authority, but that doesn’t mean being flash, putting on airs and graces or even changing your dress code. Wasn’t that a plain purple frock the Queen wore for the Prince of Saudi? Not to mention that electric “fire”. Which brings me to…
  • Advertise your frugality: We have had a decade of austerity in the UK. In many ways, we continue the march towards being a classless society. Given this, what kind of chair goes down better with the stakeholders? One who arrives in a Bentley or a Ford? A bespoke pin-stripe or an M&S off-the-peg? People want to be led by people who exude confidence, but they also want to feel their figurehead lives on planet Earth. Remember the maxim suggesting that the rich live on another planet. Don’t signal that’s where you live.
  • Leave PR to your CEO: The Queen counsels the Prime Minister in private. She speaks in public only rarely, and on those occasions the words are crafted to unite, not to divide, and certainly not to air any dirty laundry in the open. Publicity-hungry chairs are a bane. They probably shouldn’t hold the post at all.
  • Make discretion your hallmark: See above. And remember the power of mystique. Leave people wondering what you’ve told the CEO or how you’ve steered the Board. It enhances your authority. And, though this may sound a tad cynical, it insulates you from the consequences of unpopular decisions. You’re meant to be the counsel and the continuity, not the CEO.
  • Keep perspective‎: The Queen divides her time between town and country, loves walking and adores the turf. She’s counselled prime ministers dating back to Churchill. Experience is what’s required of a corporate chair. Not all of it comes from reading a balance sheet.

And finally… Know when to move with the times. Many of us who watched The Crown were taken aback at the harshness shown to Margaret when she was refused permission to marry a divorcee. The whole matter was complicated by the Monarch’s position at the apex of our national Church, admittedly. But the gradual process of Monarchy Modernisation continues under our noses, most recently with the admission of divorcee Meghan to the royal circle. Plus ca change.

Let me anticipate critics who say the Queen was born to wealth and inherited her rank. All true, but her success in-post and the maintenance of public support for the Monarchy were never a given. She has succeeded at her day job for more than 50 years. We all have plenty to learn.