Shakespeare's top tips for business

17 February 2023

What tips can we glean from the work of the Bard of Avon?

My wife and I were invited last month to see As You Like It at the fabulous new @sohoplace theatre on Tottenham Court Road.

We take our seats “in the round” and a man casually wanders on stage, sits at a piano and starts a gentle refrain. Suddenly a 17th century crowd bustles in and we are off to the Forest of Arden as witnesses to the trials and tribulations of Rosalind.

Part way through a sad Jaques reflects:

“All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players…”

For some reason these familiar lines stayed with me when my mind turned to business. Many of the components of a successful play, I realised, are relevant to a business:

  • a compelling story line to attract talent, audiences and investors (purpose and strategy)
  • tight direction to ensure that justice is done to the story (CEO)
  • astute production to make sure that the director does his or her stuff and the economics of the piece are robust (Board)
  • fine performances by the cast and attention to detail by the support and technical teams (quality management and execution by motivated colleagues)
  • hard work by everybody (well, same).

So what other tips can we glean from the work of the Bard of Avon? Here are some:

1. “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt” - Measure for Measure

This is an engaging encouragement to be bold. And it reminds me of the advice which Dame Carol Black gave to her students at Newnham College Cambridge as she shares with Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs:

“I tell them to “Have a Go”. If you don’t go for something you can never get it, you can only regret afterwards, so Have a Go.”

Businesses should be bold, innovative and ideas machines. But, of course, unfettered boldness will not work for most businesses and a key role of the Board is to consider the amount of risk that the business can accommodate - its risk appetite. This is described by The Institute of Risk Management as:

“The amount and type of risk that an organisation is willing to take in order to meet its strategic objectives.”

Businesses are increasingly sophisticated in risk identification and mitigation but, here at Chris Saul PLC, we try to keep an eye on two things:

  • the need for our Risk Appetite Framework to be dynamic and evolve as we develop strategy and the portfolio of our businesses; and
  • ensuring a textured case by case understanding of the difference between Risk Appetite (our target) and Risk Tolerance (the amount of deviation from appetite that we can live with).

2. “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late” - The Merry Wives of Windsor

This is a reminder to busy executives that it is important to be on time for engagements. There will be exceptions of course (the Tube breaks down, the internet connection crashes) but the core principle is that if you are late you are effectively saying to those you are meeting that your time is more valuable than theirs. Not good.

I remember that when a new Chair of a PLC came to my former firm to talk to a group of General Counsel, he said that the best piece of advice he had received from a seasoned chair was:

“Turn up on time, and follow up.”

3. “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees.” - Othello

This is a dark quote as it is Iago’s response to Roderigo’s frustration at how slowly Iago’s plot is unfolding, but the broader point that patience and meticulous planning pay dividends is worth pausing over.

Whilst pace in advancing business innovation is important - and the speed with which AstraZeneca and Oxford University developed their Covid vaccine is a resonant recent example - there is often much to be said for a gradualist and patient approach. The travails of the Adani Group in the aftermath of the Hindenburg Research report may be in part due to the stunning speed of the ascent of Mr Adani (his net worth was $7bn in 2014 and more than $100bn just before publication of the report). As the FT observed:

“… the pace of his companies’ growth has proved a source of increasing scrutiny at home and abroad, with critics alleging that his proximity to Modi has paid off in leniency by regulators who allowed him to muscle aside rival businesses.”

And, in M&A, transformative deals have to be carefully planned. Recent PwC research suggests that 53% of corporate acquirors underperform their peers in terms of Total Shareholder Return - with capabilities fit, rather than strategic intent, being the critical factor in success.

4. “Tis not enough to help the feeble up, but to support him after” - Timon of Athens

Here is an uplifting theme. Early in the play Timon hears that his friend Ventidius is in prison because of an unpaid debt. He says that he is not “that feather to shake off”, will pay the debt and asks that Ventidius comes to him so that he can have Timon’s support.

There are two points to make here:

  • kindness” tends to be undervalued in the business world. Maybe there is some sense that you have to be tough to get ahead but, in reality, kindness and understanding is a golden thread in good culture. So I was struck to read the Annual Report of Babcock last week and come across one page with just two words on is “be kind” (just after the page with “be curious” on it); and
  • succession planning is necessarily front of mind for many businesses, with a welcome focus on diversity of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexuality and social background. This will mean looking beyond “usual suspects” when it comes to promotion and thus Timon-style “support after” is a notion that business leaders should ponder increasingly proactively.

5. “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself” - Henry VIII

This is smart advice from Norfolk to Buckingham suggesting that if Buckingham winds the King up too much about Wolesley, he could end up wishing he hadn’t.

The takeaways for me are around the art of negotiation and are as follows:

  • if your business is in competition with another for an asset (in an auction for example) or an executive (who is looking at another potential employer), take care never to criticise your competitor as it can come back to bite you. For example, here at Chris Saul PLC we were looking to recruit Joan Wasser as our Chief Risk Officer. We knew that she was also being wooed by Aston Martin. Whilst we had doubts about their business model, we were scrupulous in not mentioning that as not only would it have diminished us in her eyes but also we may end up doing business with AM; and
  • take care not to over-negotiate. A deal needs to leave both parties feeling that the result may not be perfect but it is fair. I remember years ago negotiating a final point for a client on a deal. It was a 50:50 call (not essential to our client) and we won the point but it cast a shadow over proceedings. With my time again…

6. “Since brevity be the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief” - Hamlet

While Polonius says this with ironic flourish, as he is not generally brief, the point is an important one. Brevity and concision are to be cherished in the business world.

A board effectiveness review which does not observe that the papers are too long will be a rare item. Brevity takes time and judgement (what can I safely not tell the Board) but the effort is worthwhile. George Orwell’s 6 lessons on writing are great - inviting us, for example, to cut out unnecessary words and (love this) never use the passive when we can use the active. And the same goes for contributions in meetings. Better the well-judged and well-informed brief intervention that the tedious monologue.

7. “If music be the food of love, play on” - Twelfth Night

More irony here as Orsino, the speaker, goes on to ask for too much music so that his appetite dies - as the object of his love, Olivia, refuses to be seen for seven years whilst she grieves for her dead brother.

But the point for business is that music is nourishing. So many offices, factory floors, warehouses and delivery vans are happier and more productive places because of the presence over the airwaves of Pink Floyd, Ed Sheeran, RAYE and, now and again, Mozart. And everyone will look forward to the band playing, and the dancing, at the summer or Christmas party.

Surely no surprise then that Shakespeare guests in numerous modern tunes:

“Oh, there ain’t no love, no Montagues or Capulets Just banging tunes and DJ sets…”

Answers on a postcard.

Christopher Saul

Christopher Saul provides independent trusted advice to senior executives and key stakeholders within publicly quoted and privately owned businesses and professional service firms. His areas of focus are governance, succession and the moderation of differences.

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