Anthony Hilton: Business leaders rarely do just that

Todd Stitzer, the CEO of Cadbury Schweppes, was one of the stars of this year's Institute of Directors conference, where he delivered a rousing defence of business. His message – which was repeated last week in the Financial Times – was that the image of business in this country is poor, and its leaders will have to become more vocal in explaining the value of what they do.

They are losing the PR battle with voters and consumers, and it is time for them to stop apologising and take the fight to them, he said. He made no apology for running a chocolate company, which was in the business of selling treats. He argued that business leaders must make people understand clearly the contribution successful companies make to society.

Stitzer is American, though a long-time Cadbury employee, and that probably makes a difference.  Cadbury has a long philanthropic history, and that also adds to his credibility. But while many of his fellow executives will quietly agree with what he says,  I suspect few will join him at the barricades, or on the rostrum. 

It is simply not what British business leaders do. It has always been thus. Back in the days of  militant trade unionism, its leaders were always much more persuasive on TV than the hapless businessmen ranged against them. The reason then is the same now. Trade union leaders get to the top by being articulate, by being able to argue, and by persuading a crowd to go along with them. So do the modern opponents of business – the leaders of today’s pressure groups: they are natural leaders.

Business executives are cut from a different cloth.  Headhunters say the most common characteristic of  top executives is chronic insecurity, because out of that comes the drive to keep striving. The ability to play the corporate game matters, the luck to be in the right place at the right time crucial. But what is lacking in most cases is leadership – the ability to connect with non-peers and to motivate and inspire them. Some have it, but most simply issue orders and do not bother trying to persuade or explain. And if they cannot connect with their own employees, they are unlikely to be able to mount a rostrum and change the opinion of a sceptical public.

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