As the Queen becomes the UK’s longest ever reigning monarch this week, Stylist explores how she’s flawlessly run the family business for 63 years...
Words: Georgie Lane-Godfrey Photography: Yousuf Karsh
When you hear the words ‘inspiring female boss’, who do you first think of? Sheryl Sandberg perhaps, famous for juggling two children and a global business while finding time to inspire a generation with her book about ‘leaning in’? Angela Merkel expertly steering the world’s battered economy through these difficult times? Or Hillary Clinton teeing up the next American presidency? There are many great women, but rarely does Queen Liz make the cut. But when you consider that on 9 September, she will become our longest-ever reigning monarch, she really should.
Queen Elizabeth II has been ruling the country now for over six decades. Admittedly, she inherited the role, but if the last 63 years have proved anything, it’s that the Queen has become a master of her trade. She ascended the throne at the tender age of just 25 (that’s the same age as Taylor Swift… or when the rest of us are juggling debt, dodgy flatshares and first jobs) and since then, she hasn’t just been the figurehead of the Commonwealth, a mere 53 countries, she’s also had to raise one of the most scrutinised families in the world.
The job is spectacularly demanding. The now 89-year old is also head of state for 16 countries, meaning that she has to stay razor sharp on all national and international developments. She must also travel between offices, the 775-room Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle when working, managing 1,200 staff that make up the Royal Household. She hosts – on average – 30,000 people a year at garden parties or investitures, has received over 1.5 million guests during her reign, has visited Canada 22 times, Australia 16 and New Zealand 10, and (poor woman) has endured 37 Royal Variety Performances.
Add to that the 3.5million pieces of correspondence that she’s answered during her reign and you get some idea of the magnitude of her role. It’s hard, relentless, involves the general public and requires a convincing smile whenever the cameras are on. Which is most of the time.
The Royal Family’s colourful past hasn’t been easy to navigate either. Referred to by Princess Diana as ‘The Firm’, the Royal Family has had, as the Queen herself puts it, its fair share “of eccentricities, of impetuous and wayward youngsters and of family disagreements”. But despite this, she’s turned the family business around. Under her leadership, the Royal Family is the strongest it has been in decades, with 70% of the population now in favour of the monarchy, compared to 48% in 1997, after the death of Diana. She and her family are believed to bring in a yearly £44billion to the UK, making the rumoured cost of £35.7million in salary and expenses seem like a wise investment.
It’s enough to make even the most successful CEOs ponder their achievements. But how has she done it? We spoke to a team of royal experts to get a crash course in the business management style of a true managerial legend.
The ultimate public speaker
Adopting a personal motto of ‘I have to be seen to be believed’, the Queen is accomplished at MOOFing (that’s being ‘Mobile and Out of the Office’, ). Following her coronation in 1953, her first tour lasted six months, taking in 10 countries, 157 speeches and seven parliament openings along the way (take that TEDx). “It was an enormously successful tour,” says royal biographer Christopher Warwick. “She was this rather beautiful 27-year-old new queen with a tall, handsome Nordic consort. It was hailed as a new Elizabethan era – people were bowled over by their youth and glamour.” During her visit to Australia, it’s estimated that three-quarters of the population pitched up to see her.
Since then, she’s undertaken 261 official overseas visits to 116 different countries, charming her way around the globe with her finely tuned knowledge of international politics. She is able to smooth over tensions and gently massage relations into place; her husband, Prince Philip, describes her as the ‘Commonwealth physiotherapist’. When the Queen made a historic visit to Ireland in 2011 – the first since Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was assassinated there by the IRA in 1979 – the occasion was momentous, and her speech at Dublin Castle, the former HQ of British rule, an important conciliatory step: “It is a sad and regrettable reality that, through history, our islands have experienced more than their fair share of heartache, turbulence and loss… with the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we wish had been done differently, or not at all.”
In the words of Enda Kenny, prime minister of Ireland, the visit “closed a circle of history”. Here, the royal touch was everything – no transient politician could have breached that divide as effectively.
The Queen also showed her diplomatic colours this June in Germany when she told a state banquet that: “it took… the loss of the most terrible wars in history” to set Germany “on the path of democracy” before confirming that the UK and Germany are now the “very strongest friends in Europe”. A brilliant piece of rhetoric before David Cameron entered into talks with Merkel to redefine Britain’s status within the EU.
In fact, a recent YouGov poll suggested that the Queen is the 17th most admired person in the world (Microsoft founder Bill Gates was first), finishing ahead of Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie.
And of course there’s her annual Queen’s Speech, which has been used to define momentous events as varied as the Falklands War and Olympic success, such is her knack for discussing emotive issues with composure. Rule number one of reigning supreme? Put your audience first and choose your words very, very carefully.
Ask any CEO about the key to their success and they say hard work. At 89, the Queen is still working, making more public appearances than younger Royals. It’s one of the most potent ways she protects her family from criticism. “Public service is a survival strategy on the part of the Royal Family,” says monarchy and media expert Ed Owens. “After 1918 and the democratisation of British politics, the Royals had to make themselves more relevant to the working classes. This is a key tactic for doing that.”
Another is to stay well-informed. Every day, the Queen reads proceedings from the House of Commons and the ‘Red Book’, a round-up of intelligence from the Foreign Office. It’s difficult to gauge how intelligent she is (she’s never had to take formal exams), but she speaks fluent French, is gifted in diplomacy and famed for understanding the complexity of political issues. Oh, and she’s rumoured to be an excellent off-road driver.
Matters of state are fitted around a gruelling timetable of public appearances and visits, ranging from Samoa to County Durham. She visits lifeboat crews, school halls and power stations. Her diary is mapped out for her months, sometimes years, in advance.
Along the way, she’s met people from every walk of life. Around 1.1million guests are estimated to have attended her garden parties since 1958. The Queen has mastered the art of small talk, ensuring every person gets a moment to shine. Her duty to the British people has always come first, which is why Prince William recently stated: “I am privileged to have the Queen as a model for a life of service to the public.”
Like all superstars, the potently British Queen understands the importance of brand. She is the personification of one, so she hasn’t just maintained the same carefully crafted image, she’s owned it. As Helen Mirren noted in her Oscar speech for her leading role in The Queen, “For 50 years and more, Elizabeth Windsor has maintained her dignity, her sense of duty and her hairstyle.” Because despite the ever-present media criticism, she has never bowed to pressure to change. Much like all successful brands, her brand colours (blue, yellow and pink), look, logo, values and objectives have stayed true. While her personal style might not be exactly fashion-focused, her persistence has paid off. “She’s been criticised at times for being frumpy, but it’s become a signature look,” says Lady Celestria Noel, etiquette expert.
This consistency encompasses everything from social media (@BritishMonarchy has 1.2m followers on Twitter and even succumbs to the occasional #TBT. There is also a Facebook page, a Flickr site and YouTube channel) to charity work: she’s the patron of over 600 charities and organisations, 400 of these since the start of her reign.
Even when scandal comes calling – Fergie’s toe-sucking, Harry’s naked Vegas photos – the Queen remains on brand. In typical British fashion, her answer is just to carry on regardless.
The Queen might stay on brand, but she isn’t stuck in her ways – she’s willing to bend the rules if it’s appropriate. After Windsor Castle burnt down in 1992, the Queen was the first monarch to open Buckingham Palace to the public to raise restoration funds.
Embracing the public has been another key innovation. Unlike the past, where kings and queens were to be revered from a distance, the Queen has made the monarchy more approachable. In 1969, she allowed film-makers to produce behind-the-scenes documentary, Royal Family. During her visit to Australia in 1970, walkabouts were introduced to get closer to the crowds.
And while both Prince Edward and Prince William broke with royal tradition by marrying women with zero aristocratic credentials, the Queen embraced their wives and was “absolutely delighted” when William announced his engagement to Kate. Significantly, and extremely progressively for the Royals, she also fully backed a repeal of the primogeniture law in 2013, which had put sons ahead of daughters in the line of succession for the throne.
But the most important example of the Queen embracing the public came after the death of Princess Diana in 1997. She was criticised for staying at Balmoral with her grieving grandsons. However, such was the level of national grief, the Queen broke protocol. “It was her idea for the family to break tradition and come out on to the pavement to pay their respects when the funeral procession came down Constitution Hill,” says Warwick. “She also bowed to the coffin, which is extraordinary, as the Queen doesn’t bow to anyone.” The Queen understands the importance of the human touch, and isn’t afraid to adapt her business when the time calls for it.
When it comes to actually running the country, the Queen is more of a non-executive director than a CEO. Her role in government is purely ceremonial, so she remains strictly neutral and is not allowed to vote. She does, however, have a different kind of power – the ability to influence during her weekly meetings with the prime minister. Totally confidential, many of the 12 prime ministers the Queen has met with describe these sessions like therapy: a time where they can relax and say what’s on their minds.
Harold Wilson, PM in the Sixties and Seventies, described his visits as “going to see mother”. In these meetings, guidance is always offered with delicacy. When one of Wilson’s aides presented his honours list, the Queen simply remarked, “Please remind the Prime Minister there is always time to think again.” But not all meetings were quite as cosy. Relations with “uncaring” Margaret Thatcher were so infamously cool that they inspired Moira Buffini’s play, Handbagged.
Her relationship with the current PM seems to be faring better – David Cameron was caught on tape saying that she “purred” down the phone at him when she heard the result of the Scottish referendum. Tony Blair, allegedly, didn’t fare quite so well. On their first meeting the Queen was quick to remind him she had seen many prime ministers pass through her doors, and he was merely the 10th. “The first was Winston. That was before you were born,” she continued. But whoever the PM in power might be, one thing is for sure – the Queen always knows what her senior management is up to.
Today, 63 years on, the Queen is still running ‘The Firm’ just as efficiently as when she first took the reins. It might have taken a little compromise along the way, but she has used her poise, charm and intelligence to brilliant effect. The second Elizabethan era will go down in history for all the right reasons.
Well played, Ma’am.