Anyone who’s ever worked in consultancy has their story to tell about ‘difficult’ clients.
I remember one time being shouted at down the phone by an irate CEO.
I’d managed to get a senior director of his company a slot on Sky News.
But he wanted me to physically pull her out from the green room just as about she was due to go on air.
I managed to convince him, in spite of his blinding rage, that it would reflect badly on the company and his character.
After a few more expletives he put the phone down and the live went ahead.
The client isn’t always right. But the art of being an advisor is to politely but forcefully push back when you think their reputation is at risk.
I offer this after reading Patrick Wintour’s very detailed inquest into why Labour lost the election in today’s Guardian. It is a brilliant read but it left me equally sad, furious and frustrated.
It’s clear from reading that piece that Ed was a difficult client. But he is also a rare breed – a conviction politician who was passionate about his beliefs.
Yes, he failed to rigorously defend Labour’s economic record and rebut the Tory myths that the party ‘spent all the money’ and caused the recession.
But he genuinely believed that moving on from New Labour and reducing inequality were the right things to do.
However as parliamentary candidate myself on the doorstep in Gainsborough, the two things that came up most were Labour’s economic competence (“you spent all the money”) and “that bloody SNP woman getting into Downing Street.”
Say what you like about Lynton Crosby, Osborne and Cameron, they fought a ruthlessly effective campaign.
And with Nicola Sturgeon, they found the silver bullet to kill Ed’s ambition stone dead.
But from reading Wintour’s piece there seemed to be no one with the weight, gravitas or pure nous to speak truth to power.
You could argue that was a fault of Ed self-selecting his team of like-minded people. But it was incumbent on his advisors to push back more. I know Bob Roberts, Labour’s Director of Communications did but there many who didn’t.
How the Ed Stone made it through TEN planning meetings is beyond me. Ok, it didn’t swing the election, but it is a striking monument to the failure of his advisors to spot potential pratfalls.
The idea shouldn’t have made it through a brainstorm let alone make it to a photocall days out from polling day.
Whilst Wintour’s piece is fascinating it should also be essential reading for everyone working in politics and comms – from leadership candidates to the next generation of political advisors.
For the next leader, he or she must surround themselves with people who aren’t natural allies or like-minded souls.
Good CEOs don’t pick Yes Men. They hire people who compliment and compensate for their skills and weaknesses. The best ones value advisors with an in-built challenge function to sense check their prospective decisions.
As for leader’s advisors, they need to look further than tomorrow’s headline. The inertia in planning, the inability to spot future problems and the failure to get the boss to change direction speaks volumes of advisors who’ve never worked in the private sector.
Ed may have had a bunker mentality during the election. But there were too many advisors taking orders and not enough challenging them.
Ed was let down by the very people who are now desperately trying to salvage their own careers.
Churchill said “history is always written by the winners.”
In Labour, it seems the loser’s advisors get to write it too.