Government and CEOs: a complex two-step

Relationships are complex. To succeed they rely on mutual understanding, goodwill and respect. To thrive, there must be longevity, common purpose and trust. 

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Relationships with government are more complex than most. They bring together many players: politicians, the bureaucracy, regulators, industry associations, media, advocacy groups, lobbyists and business. Those involved must learn a complex dance - where the steps are rich with ambiguity, nuance and conflict and, where progress is delicately negotiated, often contested and hard won.

"Governments creates the policy environment - the levers - for the economy to grow and businesses uses those levers to create jobs and prosperity.”

Korn Ferry recently interviewed former politicians and bureaucrats in Australia and New Zealand who are now business leaders to gain insight into how the relationship between business and government can best work. The study, Business and Government - A Complex Dance, established the value to society of a productive, working relationship between business and government is clear.

Governments creates the policy environment - the levers - for the economy to grow and businesses uses those levers to create jobs and prosperity. Yet, despite the interdependent relationship between public policy and a growing economy, most respondents to the survey felt that in Australia, the relationship with governments could be stronger.

Crossed wires

Tension between businesses and government could be occurring because of a mutual lack of understanding of how the other works. A 24-hour news cycle that doesn’t allow for considered and careful analysis of issues also doesn’t help - nor does a view held by each that the other is transactional and self-interested.  

The study also found government ministers expect to meet with the most senior people in an organisation, meaning responsibility for the relationship sits firmly with the Chief Executive (the Chair also plays a part). Government affairs practitioners and lobbyists also have a role, particularly in relation to intelligence, advice and by paving the way to high level meetings but CEOs, and at times Chairs, need to be in the room when ministers are present.

Those who successfully build productive relationships with government take responsibility for engaging with both the bureaucracy and politicians while being aware of the influence of other stakeholders. They understand the electoral context of politicians, the policy creation environment the bureaucracy works within and the benefits of seeking alignment between the two with their business opportunities.

They are skilled communicators adept at building a case for change, or proposing a partnership with government that benefits society, their industry and their organisation - in that order. They are also agile and deal well with ambiguity. This is particularly important in Australia given the immense change and churn in federal government over recent years, which has led to policy uncertainty.

Learning the steps

Businesses crave certainty but accept the most stable of governments will make changes; a cabinet reshuffle will result in new ministers, new staff, changes in the bureaucracy and new relationships to be established.

Skilful management of the relationship needs to be a key performance indicator for business and government leaders because when they work together constructively, everyone benefits.

Learning the steps of this complex dance involves commitment to a long-term strategy and accepting the rules of this dance aren’t always easy or fair. But those in the business community who learn the steps - and are prepared to re-learn steps every time the rules change - will have the best chance of managing a professional and productive relationship with government.

Tim Nelson is CEO of Korn Ferry, Australasia

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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