It’s the time of year when many companies ask managers and employees to assess their performance and plan for the year ahead. UK prime minister Theresa May, who survived a vote of confidence by her fellow Conservative Party members this week, has had a tough year as leader of a divided nation.
But let’s not prejudge things, and approach May’s 2018 performance like a good HR professional would. The observations and advice from this review, backed by insights from management professionals, might help her in the critical months ahead, as Britain’s official exit from the EU looms on March 29.
Employee: Theresa May
Position: Prime minister
Department: UK government
Manager: Queen Elizabeth II
Last review date: June 8, 2017
Rate the employee’s performance on the following criteria from 1-5, where 5 is excellent and 1 is unsatisfactory:
3: You took on the difficult goal of steering the UK’s exit from the EU, despite voting against it. On that goal, despite the chaos it’s created, you’re delivering—”Brexit means Brexit,” as you say. The final hurdle, though, will be getting team members on board with your vision. At the moment that looks like your biggest challenge in 2019.
Progress towards your 2017 goal of building a “more united nation” has been patchy. Despite your efforts, the opinion of Stefan Stern, a management professor at the University of London, is that ”instead of bringing the country together,” you have “exacerbated division and added to the confusion.” Let’s see if we can do better on that in 2019.
Expectation-setting and communication
2: You’ve stuck with your message of “strong and stable” leadership and set high-level expectations about what you’re trying to achieve (see “Setting goals,” above). This approach has left some of your colleagues feeling left out. “Until the very moment of decision,” Sam Knight observed of you for The New Yorker, your “opinions have often been hard to fathom.” Why not share a little more about the reasoning behind your plans in a format other than stilted, pre-prepared speeches?
“A good leader reads the needs of the follower and they’re able to say what people need to hear,” says Sandra Romenska, senior lecturer in leadership at the University of St. Andrews School of Management.
While consistency is key in times of uncertainty, it wouldn’t hurt to be a bit more emotive in your communication style (sorry to say, but some of your colleagues call you “Maybot” behind your back). Modern-day politicians are not only expected to be resilient, but personable as well. Drop the “vague and somewhat authoritarian presence,” and see if you can bring some emotion “demonstrated through empathy and a connection with all sorts of people,” says organizational studies instructors Scott Taylor and Owain Smolović Jones from the University of Birmingham.
We realize this is a ridiculously difficult thing to ask of a female leader navigating a national crisis. But whenever you reveal a bit more of your humanity, that’s when you “start gaining power as a leader,” Romenska says. “It’s those moments when she shows resilience, which is a good leadership trait, and authenticity—she dares to show her true self—that she starts gaining more power as a leader and being more able to influence people rather than command them what to do.”
2: You tend to leave things to the wire—like delivering a draft withdrawal agreement just four months before Brexit, and one month before Christmas. More explicit forward-planning would help your cause.
3: While you’re trying your best to get things done, you may want to work on your “pre-sell”—getting colleagues on board before making an announcement.
Promoting team culture
1: With multiple resignations under your watch, more than a third of your party saying they lack confidence in you, and calls for a second referendum mounting, you should prioritize team-building in 2019. In the past, Stern says, you had the opportunity to be more of a “conciliatory figure, daring more extreme voices on either side to coalesce around a moderate, agreed path to a calm compromise over Brexit.”
You’ve also misread the “power landscape,” a few times, leading to a loss of authority, adds Romenska. “Good leaders seek consensus, they build alliances.” Building bridges in the UK and across Europe in the months ahead will be key, and also happens to be the area where you have shown the most room for improvement.
5: You have valiantly stuck with the style of politics, popularized by Margaret Thatcher, of “the unflinching leader who must never take a step back or change her mind,” as Stern puts it.
“True leadership emerges in situations where people have choice, where they can decide whether to do what you want them to do, where they follow you because they want to,” Romenska says. You’ve kept the Conservative Party together—just—at a time when internal divisions put it at risk of breaking apart.
You’ve also shown, occasionally, that you’re human in the midst of this chaos. Whether it’s dancing in Nairobi, going on hikes, or getting locked in your car—you’ve shown your underlings that you’re just like them from time to time, even if it’s a little embarrassing.
Recovering from setbacks
3: Next year should be a time for “critical self-reflection,” advises Romenska, on how to more effectively accrue support at home and abroad. You’re considered “dogged and determined,” and your perseverance of late has earned you more respect (tinged with pity, but still). It’s time to double down on that. “Leadership is all about the story people tell,” Romenska says. Rely on people around you to help cultivate an image as “someone resilient, fighting against the odds, for the common good. Strengthen that narrative of consensus,” she adds.
We don’t doubt you’ll see this through until the bitter end. But don’t forget to take a step back and take the long view. By most economic measures, Brexit is going to leave your country worse off. Your focus on compromise doesn’t hide the fact that your country is intensely divided. Brexit or not, if you’re going to succeed as a leader, you’ll not only have to make hard choices, but also convince people that they’re the right ones.
To this end, we’ve decided to send you on a consensus-building course next year. Good luck! You’ll need it!