Future of Work: How A Controversial Political Role Is Moving To Corporate
First, it was the Chief of Staff. Now, the Special Adviser is the latest role to transition from politics to corporate.
In the heart of the UK government, a crucial role is carried out behind the scenes: the Whitehall Special Adviser, or SpAd. These multi-skilled individuals hold a trusted position of influence, offering strategic advice on navigating party politics, media relations and expert advice on policy.
The introduction of SpAds in 1964 occurred when the nature of the governing arena was entering a period of change. The emergence of various forces—Europeanisation, internationalisation, devolution, marketisation (alongside regulation) and managerialism within the public services—collectively led to a much more complex policy-making arena. The number of UK Government SpAds has more than doubled since 2010.
Does this reinforce the idea there is a positive correlation between uncertainty and the desire for special advisers?
If so, the emergence of SpAds in the boardroom, following a period of similar uncertainty—Brexit, Covid-19 and associated lockdowns and changes in employee expectations—is perhaps no surprise.
But in the highly political boardroom, can a Special Adviser be a much-needed trusted confidante and sounding board, especially during transition or uncertainty?
Or are they unwelcome additions to the executive enablement layer because of their negative image earned through several high-profile stories?
In this article, we'll introduce you to the role of SpAd and explore the benefits and challenges of this role moving into the corporate world.
What is the role of a Special Adviser?
A technical definition: SpAds are appointed as temporary civil servants. They abide by a code of conduct, which sets out the activities they can carry out. These include speech writing, providing advice, policy development and representing the views of their minister to the media where authorised.
Most importantly: “Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of a statement whether in speeches or letters to the press or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion [...] and would not normally speak in public for their minister or the department.”
In short, SpAds are on your side, by your side and behind the scenes.
However, this behind-the-scenes behaviour has given SpAds a bad reputation. Everyone knows about at least one notorious special adviser—Alastair Campbell, spin doctor extraordinaire; Damien McBride, attack dog for Gordon Brown; and Jo Moore, forever infamous for sending an email around on 11 September 2001 saying, “Today is a good day for burying bad news.” Few can forget Dominic Cummings in the Rose Garden at No. 10.
Though some claim that the media frenzy in these stand-out examples comes from the fact that, in normal circumstances, we never hear from advisers.
“People get very excited about special advisors and what they do,” says an ex-aide. “A lot of the job is a bit mundane, day-to-day. They are there to do a job, and the vast majority of them work very well with civil servants and their ministers. It’s not the cloak and dagger, clandestine figure that people perhaps think.”
So, although some may fear the appearance of SpAds in the boardroom is a sign of the creeping politicisation of business, these fears may be based more on a handful of high-profile cases than the reality for the vast majority of SpAds.
One thing that may help SpAds leave this reputation behind is a necessary shift in focus.
It is necessary because much of the clandestine reputation of the Whitehall SpAds is due to SpAd on SpAd action. Leveraging their network of fellow SpAds, they are said to go where their Ministers can not to do deals they can't afford to be caught making. SpAds lend influence to their Minister through their network.
However, with so few corporate SpAds, this won't be an option for those in business.
Plus, although in Westminster, where each cabinet minister employs two advisers (though some, such as the chancellor, often have more and in No.10, the number is significantly higher, with more than forty advisers currently working for Downing Street), the slow introduction of SpAds into corporate means there is rarely more than one per organisation.
What we imagine may happen is while maintaining the core purpose of a special adviser (to boost effectiveness), the one-to-one relationship means the corporate Special Adviser takes on a more personal role, operating as your Executive Coach, Strategic Adviser, and Personal Change Manager.
Executives may lean on SpAds for help building, rather than borrowing, influence. For this reason, we imagine the corporate Special Adviser role to be more holistic—supporting executives in protecting their well-being and enabling self-awareness. We may even see SpAd gurus mixing yoga and meditation into the daily briefing!
While this approach (yoga TBC) will help executives become better problem-solvers and more effective leaders, the risk for the SpAds is that the good ones will do themselves out of a job. Perhaps encouraging more short-term consultancy contracts over longer mentoring relationships.
The short answer to the question of what SpAds do varies.
But despite it being not easy to get a clear answer on what they do, it's much easier to understand why they are so popular.
It can be difficult to know who your friends are, especially at the beginning of your time in a new role.
First and foremost, Ministers and leaders appreciate having a Special Adviser because, unlike your colleagues, you can choose your SpAd.
Choose wisely; you will benefit from someone who 'gets' you and is unequivocally on your side. Your Special Adviser can rise above internal politics to be a sounding board, a trusted confidante, and an independent voice—you'll hear it from them straight as they don't need to worry about their organisational standing.
They can also be a source of motivation and a valued support system when knowing who to trust is difficult. Above all, having someone you trust by your side can help you feel less alone as you navigate difficult times, which can be particularly relevant at times of uncertainty or change, such as starting a new job, scaling your team or leading through M&A activity.
Plus, depending on the type of guidance you need, your SpAd can bring capabilities you only need for a short period. For example, they may specialise in change management, crisis management or onboarding.
Leaders in the organisational minority find working with a SpAd specialising in identity politics beneficial. Research suggests our gender and colour influence how those we interact with interpret what we say and do. SpAds specialising in identity politics can help you understand the various (frustrating) dynamics. This knowledge can help you to stay one step ahead.
Again, the move to corporate is likely to change the SpAd playbook.
Though many skills will be the same, we expect deep knowledge of business frameworks will be essential. We may start to see corporate SpAds as walking, talking MBAs ready to regurgitate the model you need just as you need it. They will need to quickly understand the various business models and strategies their company is using and be able to advise on the necessary adjustments to ensure success. In short, corporate SpAds will need to be business savvy as well as strong strategic minds.
What else should you be looking for in your dream Special Adviser?
Choosing the right person is essential. They may not be who you'd expect.
While political special advisers are expected to be always on (an ex-spad described their experience: "If I turn my phone off, I’ll get bollocked for it.") the role of corporate Special Adviser need not be so intense.
This creates a number of interesting opportunities.
The Whitehall SpAd is often a stepping stone to a larger, sometimes Ministerial role. Many SpAds become members of parliament, such as the Miliband brothers and Ed Balls. However, we expect the corporate SpAd to be a mid-career or second-career path. Rather than a troupe of bright young things, expect retired, semi-retired or part-time executives to become SpAds.
This is because of the potential benefits of working with a SpAd who brings decades of relevant experience and because of the shift in the talent market.
Millions of executives took early retirement as part of the Great Resignation. The economic uncertainty of the past three years, rising inflation and interest rates, mean the calculations on which they made their decision may no longer add up. We may be on the verge of the 'Great Application', where millions begrudgingly accept that they need to be earning again. The role of corporate SpAd may be exactly what they're looking for.
During the pandemic, women exited the labour force at twice the rate of men; their participation in the paid labour force is now the lowest it has been in more than 30 years. The cost of childcare prevents women from returning to work and compounds their challenges in keeping their skills and knowledge relevant.
The part-time or consultancy nature of the corporate special adviser also makes this role suitable for those with responsibilities.
We'd love to see the corporate SpAd become an opportunity for retaining and benefitting from the professional expertise of women unable to commit to full-time paid employment.
A very different path to that of the Chief of Staff, which first started getting a 'Tech Bro' reputation when high-profile execs like Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg hired Chiefs of Staff.
Despite the differences, it is impossible to discuss the rise of the corporate SpAd without drawing comparisons with the Chief of Staff —the archetype for roles making their way from politics into business and start-ups.
How is a Special Adviser Different to a Chief of Staff?
Let's start with what they have in common. Both CoS and Special Adviser anticipate problems and are especially sensitive to issues that require diplomacy. They function as extra eyes and ears by pointing out political potholes their bosses may not recognise (especially if the bosses are new to the company) and act as honest brokers when the leader needs a wide-ranging view without turf considerations.
However, whereas the CoS role may encompass being an air traffic controller for the leader and the senior team, the SpAd works for one leader. Where a CoS is an integrator connecting work streams that would otherwise remain siloed, the SpAd tends not to get involved in operations.
In Summary, can we expect to see the rise of the corporate SpAd?
In the highly political boardroom, a Special Adviser could be a much-needed trusted confidante and valued sounding board, especially during transition or uncertainty.
There is huge potential for the role to be filled by the expertise we would otherwise lose from the labour force, and despite their negative image, a reimagining of responsibilities may change that.
Although the SpAd role offers a combination of mentor, executive coach and strategic adviser, leaders who otherwise feel outnumbered in their organisation will feel the actual value. In which case, perhaps their role in government and corporate is the same.