Why don’t Brits rule the world

Posted on February 7, 2011

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Robert Peston’s recent article on the lack of Brits at the top of UK businesses is fascinating, especially in light of the BBC’s Who Gets The Best Jobs programme.

He reasons that UK companies are no longer run by UK citizens whilst top companies in the US, Sweden, Germany, France and India do tend to have their own citizens in the top jobs; asking whether it’s as simple as the fact that Brits just want the comfortable life?

Of course, there are several glaring issues here:

The first is the fact that the English language has become so ubiquitous that there is no natural protectionism as you will find in countries like Sweden or Germany where a much larger proportion of those that speak the language will also be nationals than is the case in the UK.

The second is that the UK is one of the oldest markets and, as such, it’s less likely that large corporates, with expansion plans, will promote someone with limited experience of growth markets.  Start you career in the UK rather than Mexico, Brazil or China and you’re likely to be at a disadvantage, having cut your teeth in a reasonably stable, undynamic business environment.  Such environments are less conducive to producing top-quality leaders of the future, leaders who will make their profits outside of the first world.

Start you career in the UK rather than Mexico, Brazil or China and you’re likely to be at a disadvantage.

But there is a third reason, which may be rooted in the fact that we love to knock leaders in this country, as suggested, or may simply come from the fact that many of our middle classes are able to carve out a reasonably comfortable existence without having to push themselves all that hard.  With an economy that is heavily reliant on service sectors, reaching senior levels in banking, the law, consulting and the like is often “good enough.”

And there is certainly a growing trend in Britain for even the highest of high flyers not to aspire to the top job.  In recent focus groups I held at the University of Nottingham, many (very impressive) students aspired to being leaders, but not the leader.  It’s something that I’ve seen time and again in recent years, especially in areas such as law where many new trainees express a desire to rise within corporate firms, but where most find the notion of being partner, let alone managing partner, undesirable.

The exception to this desire to be in charge is when it comes to leading their own business.  In a society that has seen the “overnight” successes of Google and Facebook and an economy that increasingly doesn’t make anything tangible, ideas have become our currency and many people coming out of our universities want to retain their intellectual property.

It seems to me that British people do want to run businesses, they just don’t want to run the ones that already exist.

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