Britain great for business executives say

50thanniversary482x271Britain has become more innovative despite five years of boom and bust.

Business leaders overwhelmingly believe that Britain has been great for business in the last 50 years.

In a poll of more than 300 senior executives conducted by London Business School, 89% said that Britain has been great for business. More than half (57%) think Britain has become more innovative over the last five decades.

Britain’s business-friendly credentials are in the spotlight in the months before a UK General Election. Its place in the EU is again under scrutiny. On 11 November, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, Jim Ratcliffe of Ineos, Carolyn McCall of easyJet and Lord Burns of Santander and Channel 4 will debate the survey’s central question: Has Britain been great for business?

Ahead of this unique event, hosted by London Business School and the Sunday Times Business section to celebrate their respective 50th anniversaries, the survey gave hundreds of senior executives the chance to register their views on a range of topics including risk and business structures.

In the last 50 years Britain has seen boom and bust. And, despite 51% of business leaders believing uncontrolled risk-taking was the main cause of the financial crisis, we can still stomach risk. When asked about their personal attitude to risk, an overwhelming majority of business leaders (83 %) still agree that measured risk-taking is an important part of business.

We’re confident it seems about our ability to create and innovate too. Fewer than 10% of senior executives cite innovation as a barrier to growth. New challenges lie ahead though. Rising energy costs are now the most pressing concern for 46% of senior executives.

Management of our companies is changing too. More than half (58%) of senior executives say flat management structures are better than hierarchical structures. They make companies more agile and responsive, they argue. Critics of flat structures though say they result in too many generalists and too few specialists. The survey suggests that there may be some truth in this. More than a third (34%) of respondents said that technical expertise is the biggest skills gap in their companies.

Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy & Entrepreneurship, London Business School, says: "The best companies today push decision making closer to the front line, emphasising speed and responsiveness, but without jeopardising control and deep individual competence. It is a delicate balance."

Leadership is still firmly in the spotlight though and not in a good way. More than half the respondents said the biggest skills gap in their organisations was at the general management or senior leadership level. Perhaps our focus has been elsewhere: 22% of respondents said that lack of skills in the workforce was the least pressing concern for them.

Richard Hytner, Adjunct Associate Professor of Marketing, London Business School, author of Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows, and Deputy Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, says: “This new data confirms the urgent need for business leaders to reframe their view of leadership. While we need and crave courageous, charismatic and brilliant decision-makers, leadership can no longer be the sole preserve of those ‘at the top’. CEOs and ultimate leaders of organisations expected to operate in the punitive limelight of public scrutiny, more than ever need influential advisors, deputies and coaches able to enlighten and anchor them.”

And if we could have our time again? Almost a third (32%) of business leaders would be teachers.18% would head for Westminster and a career in politics, while 15% would opt for a doctor’s life.

Richard Hytner says: “Interestingly, teachers, politicians and doctors all require the kind of skills needed by those who lead from the shadows. Beyond their core competencies, the best of them are characterised by high degrees of emotional intelligence and empathy, together with the ability to enlighten, influence and, sometimes, even heal.”