What can CEOs learn from Sir Keir Starmer’s first 100 days, and vice versa?

Sir Keir Starmer recently completed his first hundred days as Leader of the Opposition in the UK’s Parliament. Commentators have assessed these according to their political bias.

But none disagree on his chief achievement: his “forensic” approach to “calling out” the government on its behaviour.

CEOs can learn much from his approach. Keir Starmer is a barrister and, as Nigel Pascoe QC explained in BarriserBlog (2013), there are four rules in cross-examining a witness:

“Firstly, put your…case as shortly, clearly and concisely as possible and then leave it…you should try to keep control of the witness whom you are cross-examining. By that, I mean that as the questioner, you should be in the driving seat and by the precision of your questions, keep the witness confined to your chosen territory…the second golden rule, expressed in the truism that the art of cross-examination is not the art of examining crossly…The third rule, perhaps underpinning all the others, is that you must prepare your cross-examination meticulously. You need to think, so far as you can anticipate it, of the worst answer that the witness might give and how you are going to follow up their answer…The fourth rule is probably the best known. Never ask a question, it is said, to which you do not know the answer already. Now I would qualify that rule…Never ask a question unless you have a very good idea of what the answer is likely to be. In other words, there are times when you may feel that you can take a calculated risk…Beyond those four rules, there is one indefinable matter which is very difficult to explain and which you will only appreciate after you have been cross-examining for a while – something in the air that you detect and can use. Sometimes you will sense a line of cross-examination that you had not planned at all. And pursuing it carefully, suddenly the atmosphere changes in court…”


CEOs will achieve more productive outcomes if they follow these rules, at least directionally, when in “cross-examining mode” at board meetings, 1-1s and at the end of internal or external presentations and pitches.

Some barristers take delight in “shredding” witnesses as some CEOs do their direct reports, suppliers and staff. This approach may lead to winning in court but rarely leads to a long term win in organisations. 

While Sir Keir Starmer has deployed these rules to productive effect over his first 100 days he could learn some tricks from those CEOs who are effective and emotionally intelligent. 

In the unlikely event of him asking me for my advice for his next 100 days, I would suggest three things:

  • Make your top people look good. 
    • The job of a leader is to create an environment in which the people they lead can thrive. The Leader of the Opposition leads their MPs, and especially their front bench, no one else. While everyone is obsessed with how Sir Keir might “lead the country” if he became Prime Minister, they must know that even prime ministers don’t lead the country. They too are paid to lead their MPs and especially their Cabinet. The mistake prime ministers and leaders of the opposition make is that they don’t spend enough time promoting their top team and listening to their backbenchers. Mrs Thatcher lost power because of that error. Most PMs do. The best CEOs avoid that trap.
  • Help us understand “Starmerism”
    • As yet it’s not clear what Sir Keir cares deeply about i.e. his purpose. He must fix this soon, or he risks becoming a “one-trick-pony”. People will soon tire of the word “forensic” and realise that he should not be praised for just doing his job: calling out the PM. They need more. What’s “the more?” Sir Keir? Tell us. CEOs have an “-ism” like politicians evidenced by the change in culture in organisations when CEOs with “strong” personalities are replaced by others with different personalities. Clever CEOs figure out their purpose and live it.
  • Please all of your stakeholders, not some
    • Sir Keir’s stakeholders are society, his MPs and voters. CEOs stakeholders are society, their people and shareholders. Each must balance these. Neither task is easy. But failure to do so leads to failure. 

Finally, CEOs currently share one other factor with Sir Keir: every CEO has recently completed their first 100 days as a “cum-COVID-19 CEO”. None could avoid it.

The pandemic is creating new challenges for leaders, not least a significant shift in stakeholder expectations. A reframed shared purpose, an appropriate strategy to achieve it and nothing short of a leadership relaunch are likely to work.

The problem for CEOs and Sir Keir is that these steps are painful. The good news is that the pain is worth it, for all.

Ciarán Fenton

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