Brexit Breakups

Prime Minister May faces more challenges as some cabinet members resign over her plan. Is her vision clear enough for a consensus?



In any negotiation, it’s assumed that each side has a common objective. But when it comes to the ongoing Brexit negotiations, that may not be the case.

Over the weekend Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled her Brexit plan. But by Monday two pro-Brexit members of May’s Cabinet had quit in protest. Other ministers may follow suit, and some experts are wondering whether May herself will leave soon.

What should May do? The question for her is one senior leaders inside and outside of government face all the time, one that can’t be solved, experts say, unless the leader has a clear vision for a deal and, importantly, can convey it to everyone else. “When both sides know what they want then it helps both sides get over potentially significant obstacles,” says Kirsta Anderson, global solutions leader for Culture Transformation at Korn Ferry in London.

May’s new plan calls for the UK keeping close ties with the European Union even after an official divorce. It is “softer” than earlier iterations of Brexit that May has spoken of before. Many members of her own party, including the two Cabinet ministers who quit, say the plan doesn’t go far enough separating the UK from the EU. To complicate matters further, there’s a December deadline for the UK to leave the EU and talks have been stalled for months on trade, immigration and other major issues.

Major issues like those can be overcome, however, when negotiators have in mind a clear goal. Case in point: Decades ago automakers General Motors and Toyota wanted to start a joint venture to build cars in the United States, but a big sticking point was whether the workforce in the joint venture would be unionized (at the time, a unionized workforce likely meant labor higher costs and a potentially adversarial relationship between management and assembly line workers). The two sides took a step back, Anderson says, and each remembered the true purpose of a deal. GM wanted to know how to make smaller cars (which was Toyota’s expertise), while Toyota wanted to learn from GM about how to build cars in the United States.  "That clarity of purpose enabled them to make the right decision," Anderson says. 

Even if a leader’s decision is unpopular it can be easier to work with when there’s a clear vision behind it. For instance, Steve Jobs held firm on a few things while running Apple, but was transparent about it (no focus groups, concentrate on a limited number of products, emphasize ease of use and aesthetics). He kept doing so even though he went through an ignominious 1985 firing. However, that clarity led the company’s board to bring him back in 1997, and the rest is corporate history.  “People will follow a person who has a firm conviction and has thought about it,” says Dési Kimmins, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and head of Leadership Development Solutions for EMEA.