Is it possible to make a successful transition from business to politics?

Serial entrepreneur Ivan Massow has entered the race to succeed Boris Johnson as Mayor of London: but is it ever a good idea for people from the world of business to cross over into politics?

This week saw entrepreneur Ivan Massow officially launch his bid to be the Conservative candidate in the 2016 London mayoral election.

In a short animated video he expressed his desire to stand as a “disruptor” who would challenge the way politics in the capital is conducted.

He is the latest in a long line of characters from the business world despairing at the inefficiency and lack of transparency in politics and concluding it can only be changed from the inside.

But is it ever a good idea for entrepreneurs and other business leaders to get involved in politics? If it is possible, what are the most important things to bear in mind? It’s worth having a look at some of the people who have tried previously and their mixed fortunes.

Stick to your strengths

One important key to making the crossover successfully is to find a position within politics in which you can use the skills your successful business career has left you with.

One business giant who took this advice on board was John Davies. He was director-general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) between 1965 and 1969 before joining the Conservative party.

After being given a safe seat in the 1970 general election he was fast-tracked to the position of secretary of state for trade and industry. Using the transferable knowledge from the CBI he used the position as a springboard for a glittering political career that culminated in his appointment as shadow foreign secretary in 1976.

Davies was certainly helped by then prime minister Ted Heath’s desire to form a pro-business cabinet, but by never straying too far from his business roots in the early days he was able to cement his place in government and was well-respected on all sides of the house.

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He won plaudits from all parts of the media when he sadly died of a brain tumour in 1979.

Make sure you’ve got more than money behind you

In 2010 former eBay CEO Meg Whitman stood for office as governor of California. Despite investing a staggering $144m of her own personal funds (one of the highest amounts of all time) in the campaign she still came a fairly distant second to rival Jerry Brown.

Many saw Whitman’s biggest failing as a lack of subtlety and savvy during her campaign. While it’s not true to say that money can open every door there is in business, it’ll at least get your voice heard. And while money will also help you in politics, the way you use it to grow your influence has to be a bit more canny.

In the business world if you have made a shed load of money that almost always translates to universal respect and acclaim. However, in politics it’s not always that simple. Throwing money around like there’s no tomorrow can come across as bullying opponents out of the race and make you look like a Goliath against a plucky and principled David.

To be successful in politics (especially US politics) having money behind you is important. But just be wary that it’s not the only thing you need – a little local knowledge and astute tactics from your opponent can quickly turn your bank account into an albatross around your neck.

Know when your business is other people’s business

One of the most famous politicians from the UK today is a former commodity broker from the City. Like him or loathe him, Nigel Farage is a hugely successful leader who has taken the UK Independence Party to new heights; receiving 13% of all votes cast in the recent general election.

But despite his background in business, in which he made a significant amount of money, it’s not something he brings up much. While characters such as Whitman and Davies often pointed to their successful business careers as reasons to trust their judgement, it’s not something you’ll hear from the UKIP leader.

This is largely because Farage knows his audience and has created a carefully sculpted brand to appeal to them. His man of the people persona doesn’t quite chime with the image of a city broker and he is very aware of this.

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So while there are certainly times when the ability to make your own way in the ultra-competitive world of business is an advantage, knowing when to put up and knowing when to shut up are equally valuable skills.

Speak the language of business when appropriate

Recently appointed secretary for business, innovation and skills Sajid Javid is someone who knows a thing or two about business himself.

As a former director of Deutsche bank he will be hoping to use his experience in financial services to build a solid connection with the business world.

The early signs are good for Javid. He has supposedly “gone to war” with red tape and what he sees as anti-business bureaucracy.

After a stint as the minister for sport and culture Javid is on home turf now. What he is already doing, and will continue to do, is use language he would have appreciated in his former life to get the current business community on side.

The removal of red tape is often used as shorthand for business to tell Westminster to leave it alone.

Beyond setting low corporation tax and business rates there is little many business owners feel government can do for them. Someone like Javid will understand this and will target his rhetoric to appeal to this view. Whether it works in the long-term only time will tell.

So those are four examples of good tips for anyone moving from business to politics to bear in mind. The transition can be successful but whether it’s through talking to friends of taking more formal advice, it’s crucial people who are moving from one field to the other know what they’re letting themselves in for.

Whether Ivan Massow can make it work remains to be seen. But with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work there’s no reason why he can’t be the next Mayor of London.

Further comment: How to avoid global growing pains


Hywel Roberts

Hywel was editor of Growth Business in 2015 and then moved on to be deputy editor at Works Management.

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