Corporations Should Ask Themselves: What Would the Queen Do?

The past five years have been unkind to the corporate world. Since the U.S. economy’s nosedive in 2008, seemingly infallible financial giants have been vanquished and the average CEO’s compensation has diminished.

Rosemary Gilliat Eaton/Library and Archives Canada

Queen Elizabeth II visits Ottawa, Canada, as part of her royal tour in 1957.

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As I sipped my cup of tea the other day, it occurred to me that there’s a firm out there that could teach others a thing or two about doing business efficiently and nurturing the love of its shareholders. You surely have heard about its president, who celebrated her Diamond Jubilee this week — Queen Elizabeth II.

As a kid I was taught that the queen “reigns but does not rule.” However, Her Majesty is no mere figurehead — thanks to the Royal Prerogative, she holds (if rarely exercises) enormous powers, such as opening and dissolving a parliament, appointing and dismissing a prime minister, and declaring wars. Today, 128 million people live in the 16 countries of which she remains head of state.

Since 1952, she has witnessed the world map repeatedly realign, governments rise and fall, her own family’s drama dissected by tabloids — and she has survived it all, guiding “the firm” steadily into the new millennium.

Even the inherited nature of her role is seen in business: approximately 60 percent of all public companies in the U.S., and nearly 35 percent of Fortune 500 companies, are family controlled.

While other family-led corporations struggle to hold a grip in fast-paced times, the Queen’s rule appears as solid as ever despite her advanced age. As her predecessor and namesake, Queen Elizabeth I, so eloquently put it, “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king.”

Her Majesty has been around for so long that it is easy to overlook her impact on the world. Here are the top five lessons that the corporate world could learn from her:

1.  A woman can lead

It is unfortunate that, in 2012, the corporate world still needs to learn this lesson, yet the number of concurrent female CEO’s in the Fortune 1000 has only reached 39. The queen is the 40th British monarch and seventh female ruler since William the Conqueror. Most of these women not only held the throne, but have also been enormously successful despite facing significant challengers. At least two women, Queen Elizabeth II and Queen Victoria, have been nominated by historians for best British monarch.

Other women could also take a lesson: Queen Elizabeth II has not only served her country for over five decades, but has done so without sacrificing family. She has raised four children, two of whom were born while she was queen.

2.  Play well with others

Whatever her personal political beliefs, Queen Elizabeth II has regularly met and worked with 10 different British prime ministers and numerous leaders from Commonwealth realms. Margaret Thatcher once wrote that “anyone who imagines that [these meetings] are a mere formality or confined to social niceties is quite wrong; they are quietly businesslike and Her Majesty brings to bear a formidable grasp of current issues and breadth of experience.”

And while the queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, she has spoken many times about tolerance. This is refreshing, considering that many corporate and political leaders cannot place the interests of their customers and voters before their own.

3.  Social engagement and responsibility

Everyone feels lazy once in a while, yet the queen handles roughly 430 engagements each year and supports more than 600 charitable organizations and programs. And, if that were not enough, Elizabeth is also reported to spend an average of three hours a day reading state papers.

4.  Exercise frugality in tough times

As head of state, the queen receives approximately $12.7 million from the Civil List (the amount that has remained unchanged for the past two decades) to pay some of her official expenditures. Over the last several years, the queen has lowered her expenditures. After a one-year freeze in Civil List pay last year, a spending cut of 14 percent by the royal household was announced for this and next year. The funds for the state duties and staff of the non-senior royals are fully refunded by the queen to the Treasury.

This is actually on par with $12.9 million in total pay, the average amount earned by the CEOs of America's largest companies in 2011. It certainly is a significantly higher number than what elected heads of state receive, but based on the number of official positions she holds, the queen’s “CEO” salary from merely four of 16 countries in the Commonwealth (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the U.K.) would net her over one million dollars.

5.  Change with the times

The queen is independently wealthy, with vast property, fine art, gems, and more. In 1992, she offered to start paying income and capital gains tax. She has opened her official residencies to the public — including Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle — in order to finance their maintenance.

Although the queen is the symbol of tradition, she evolves with the times: she supported ending the rule of male primogeniture and lifting the ban on anyone in the line of succession marrying a Catholic.

Certainly, the queen has made her fair share of mistakes; she is human, after all. But what she has conveyed to her people — her shareholders — is a sense of steadfastness and integrity often lacking in the corporate world. For this, she is admired even by anti-royalists.

On her 21st birthday, barely two years after World War II, a young princess Elizabeth said, “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.” Sixty-five years later, Her Majesty shows no signs of wavering from that duty. Even as the world is racing ahead at breakneck speed, such loyalty to one’s vocation and shareholders will never be outdated.