Wanted: CEOs Willing to Take a Pay Cut and Run an Embassy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s enough to make a career diplomat drop the tray of Ferrero Rocher. After years of civil-service budget cuts, pay caps and even the sale of a historic embassy in Bangkok, the U.K. government is now open to picking ambassadors from the private sector rather than just the ranks of Foreign Office veterans. While the idea of a CEO ambassador  may seem shocking to some, it’s a pretty good idea if not taken too far.

The fear from some civil servants seems to be that this will devalue both the ambassador job itself and the talent pool already available within the diplomatic corps. After all, why put future envoys through rigorous examination and training all over the world if the most highly coveted jobs will just end up going to bankers, management consultants, or Harvard MBAs?

But this sounds more like institutional defensiveness rather than a fresh debate about what the job should be. Former ambassador to Cuba Tim Cole once said the post required leadership, people management, good communication, good judgment — and the ability to send concise e-mails. Is that so exclusive that Britain’s private-sector talent pool should be barred? Considering top embassy jobs pay just over six figures, while junior jobs can pay as little as 19,805 pounds ($25,297), attracting the kind of person who could easily earn more elsewhere seems like a positive signal, provided enough opportunities remain for career diplomats to serve in senior roles.

More diversity makes sense. Rather than “jobs for the best,” the civil service has shown a historical trend of “jobs for the boys.” Men outnumber women 62 percent to 38 percent in the upper quartile of Foreign Office jobs, only slightly narrower than the 71-29 gap seen in FTSE 100 boardrooms. In 1995, when top official Pauline Neville-Jones was passed over for the role of ambassador to Paris in favor of a man six years her junior in career terms, she quit to join a bank. A CEO like Emma Walmsley at GlaxoSmithKline ending up in a late-career diplomatic position would send the opposite message.

Obviously, some foreign postings are more sensitive than others, and sometimes even a good CEO can be totally lacking in diplomatic finesse. It is hard to imagine boozing billionaire Mike Ashley or the outspoken Wetherspoon chairman Tim Martin discussing the finer points of the debate over Polish judicial reform. You would also not want to offer diplomatic immunity to executives nervous about a future scandal coming to light, especially in the “Me Too” era.

But in a post-Brexit world, the U.K. will have to do a lot of globe-trotting and hand-shaking to convince other countries that it is a reliable trading partner, a great place to do business, and a key geopolitical player — not simply just “Belgium with nukes.” Well-known business leaders might do a good job, given that so much depends on securing investment and exerting influence. Prime Minister Theresa May frequently tours countries with a business delegation in tow.

Other countries have gone down this route before. The U.S., of course, nearly always chooses ambassadors from outside the diplomatic corps for plum positions (former U.K. ambassador Raymond Seitz was a notable exception). Often they are friends of the president or notable donors. George W. Bush chose Robert Tuttle, a car dealership magnate, as U.K. ambassador,  and doled out positions to a whole league of donors and baseball team owners. Barack Obama’s decision to appoint soap opera producer Colleen Bell as ambassador to Hungary prompted the late Senator John McCain to protest: “A nation on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator getting in bed with Vladimir Putin, and we’re going to send the producer of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ as the ambassador?” Britain’s discussion is a toe in the water by comparison. 

Yet Brexit has shown how business leaders can also be grown-up and diplomatic, even as politicians lose their grip on civil discourse. Plenty of FTSE 100 companies have planned for the worst while still promoting the City of London as a place to do business. Government ministers in charge of the Foreign Office, however, have been less charitable about the Brexit process — current Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt likened the European Union to Soviet Russia, and predecessor Boris Johnson apparently dismissed corporate critics with a curt expletive.

With CEOs increasingly mindful of the political context of their decisions, as the recent desertion of Saudi Arabia’s investment conference attests, diplomats should warm to the idea of getting more of them on board.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance and markets. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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