What can leaders learn from Theresa May's conference speech?

What can leaders learn from Theresa May's conference speech?

Yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May’s conference speech was plagued with misfortune - a persistent cough, a prankster handing her a fake P45, and to add to it, an unstable stage that sabotaged her slogan.

Despite the setbacks, May responded in a quintessentially British fashion; she was polite, kept calm and carried on, putting forward her range of new policies as part of her mission to promote a ‘British dream’ - despite the scene engulfing her in a nightmare.

The PM outlined policies such as putting £2billion towards building 25,000 new council houses and social homes, draft legislation for a cap on energy bills and, she apologised for her campaign shortcomings in the summer snap election.

But what does May’s speech hold for HR? Firstly, she battled through an important speech, despite being ill. Whilst this indicates her responsibility as a leader, it also draws attention to the sinister problem of presenteeism, echoing throughout UK workforces. According to Aviva’s Working Lives report, UK workers are three times more likely to go into work unwell than ‘pull a sickie’.

Furthermore, the average number of sick days has been steadily falling, dropping to a record low of 4.3 days taken annually by UK employees, in 2016 - compared with 7.2 days in 1993 when tracking began. And it is employer attitudes deterring employees from taking time off, with under half (43%) of employees feeling that their employer puts the results of the company ahead of their health and wellbeing.

Although it may have hindered May’s position if she failed to be present, employers shouldn’t expect the same attitude. “While every business wants the right level of resource in place, having employees who are unwell at work is a false economy,” Dr Doug Wright, Medical Director at Aviva UK Health, explains. “Businesses need to ensure they create a working culture whereby people do not feel pressurised into coming to work when they are unwell, safe in the knowledge their absence can be effectively managed.”

Another feat tackled by May, was taking ownership of her own failures and apologising to her party for her unsuccessful campaign. Accountability is important in all facets of our lives, as shifting blame onto others will never solve issues.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jonathan Raymond author of the ‘Good Authority: How to Become the Leader Your Team is Waiting For’ states that most leaders view accountability as a foundational ingredient in a healthy and sustainable culture, but they seem to fail to take this concept and use it to help personal growth. He explains that leaders should “be observant” of their staff and address any problems that they see, to encourage accountability, without blame. “We all need people to reflect us back to ourselves, to be centred enough in themselves to let us work through our initial defensiveness and excuses so that we can let them go and get back to the work of becoming a better version of ourselves. Accountability can help do that,” he explains.

  • Tom Godber
    Tom Godber
    Fri, 6 Oct 2017 8:55am BST
    I think there are two key things anyone (let alone HR) can learn from this speech.

    1. Making an effective presentation relies more on your ability to engage the listener and ensure they take away the key messages you want to impart - rather than drowning them with content. So how you present the info is normally more critical than the detail of the content itself. So Mrs May failed dismally on that - not just the coughing etc, but none of these conference speeches ever deviate from someone droning on for ages! What's more, I hear normal protocol is to protect the leaders voice for the keynote address - and the team around her had her at countless low profile events - talking and talking and talking - not good for the throat.

    2. I totally disagree with Mrs May as any example of taking accountability for the failures. In what world does an apology 3 months after the event, in the wake of countless prompts by the media to issue an apology, count as an authentic apology. Authenticity is the key in leadership, and I didn't see that here

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