The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses has arguably been bigger than the 2008 financial crisis, with no sight of the end of the current crisis. C-Suite leaders are steering their organisations in both turbulent and unchartered waters. How has risk assessment evolved in a time when everything you do carries more risk of failure? How do leaders ensure that the positive changes in working methods are here to stay? How is the C-Suite responding to the evolving demands of both their clients and employees?
We take a deep dive into these questions, and more, in this special edition of the Winmark C-Suite Report.
With special thanks to Paul Donovan, NED, Thames Water and Peter Jackson, CEO, Hill Dickinson
All businesses are witnessing unprecedented times at the moment, with material impact on the strategy and direction of organisations as well as all stakeholders involved. How have CEOs and NEDs responded, as two facets of top leadership? This is the time for leaders to take a no-stone-unturned approach, and rethink the meaning of leadership in areas such as communication, crisis response and culture during this difficult period.
In a crisis, no other person is more expected to speak than the CEO. In most commercial crises, it is important for the CEO to step up first and deliver a macro-level view of the crisis in order to manage stakeholder sentiment. The CEO may not need to engage in too many further follow-ups in public, but must still remain available when circumstances call for it.
However, this pandemic is not just one crisis event but should rather be seen as a chain reaction where each node is a different crisis. Operational, financial and employee issues are just some of the most prominent areas where a crisis will occur.
Frequent CEO visibility is the key to effective communication in this pandemic, with many having taken the helm to provide stability and confidence within their organisations. CEOs have engaged in regular, if not daily, video updates addressed to the whole organisation, while some have made a commitment to put their names on each piece of company-wide communication. This is one of the most effective ways to make sure that employees understand the senior leadership’s commitment to weather this crisis but also provides much-needed transparency in these challenging times.
Non-executive directors are also taking up new methods of communication with their boards. Apart from virtual calls that are now standard, many have noted that meeting efficiency can be greatly increased by reducing the exchange of pleasantries that face-to-face meetings often require. Three-hour long meetings can now be reduced to one, providing much-needed focus for strategic thinking. This naturally raises the question of how board meetings will fundamentally change once the pandemic is over and new working methods become the new normal.
Organisations with a global footprint will encounter many complications as they seek to adjust to an uneven distribution of the new normal. Some areas in Asia are already recovering from the immediate impacts of the virus and are now beginning to reboot and rebuild. Apart from the obvious positive result of a partial reactivation of supply chains, there is much to learn from these jurisdictions in terms of return-to-work procedures and commercial agility post-pandemic.
Many organisations shifting to home-working will immediately realise that the traditional office model is ripe for change. CEOs have taken the lead in rethinking how their physical operations will change during and after the pandemic. Some have taken the obvious route of reducing office space, while some have chosen to repurpose existing floorspace into collaborative and more welcoming communal spaces.
NEDs have seen an uptick in engagement with the board and the CEO, and have recognised this difficult period as a chance to add value. Organisations see the value of NEDs providing not just strategic advice but also insight into how businesses can be more efficient operationally. Some sitting on operational resilience committees, or similar setups, are providing much needed outsider insight on issues such as cybersecurity and safe working practices.
Agile and remote working has been proven to work much more than people expected. While obstacles remain, the fear that the lack of physical employee visibility reduces productivity has been shown to be unfounded. CEOs understand the inherent power of trust and autonomy, and remote working has allowed these values to shine through during lockdown and beyond. This bodes well for the further entrenchment of remote working practices that have been shown to deliver value and efficiency.
In this pandemic, care is again at the forefront of societal narratives. While business and ‘care’ may not seem to be natural allies, leaders are increasingly aware of the power of care. Corporate social responsibility and the emphasis of employee well-being have long been on the agenda, but this pandemic offers a real chance for leaders to make sure that the culture of care permeates through each corner of the business.
Not all workers have equal homeworking conditions, and part of the CEO’s role is to ensure that each worker’s circumstances are taken into account. Some may have to attend to childcare while others do not operate in a completely secure environment. Some workers from overseas may feel lonely if their families are not with them. Some CEOs have made a point in opening up their phone lines so any employee regardless of function or level could directly call in to address concerns.
For NEDs, this emphasis of care also impacts how they help steer an organisation’s strategy. With crisis comes opportunities for clarity, and many leaders have stressed the importance of care in delivering products to clients and customers. When businesses do the responsible and right thing for employees and customers, employee alignment and business results will follow.
"I’m delighted that at the request of Winmark I have accepted the role of Diversity & Inclusion Board member representing the interests of the NED cluster. I sincerely believe that, at a time when the UK needs business to make a crucial contribution, and when companies need to reinvent themselves, we must go further to boost life chances and productivity to ensure that people from all walks of life rise as high as their talents allow. Just imagine our economic future if we succeed, and our pipeline is full of the combination of difference. "
With special thanks to Angus Cockburn, Group CFO, Serco
The impact of the pandemic hits different organisations in different ways, and even different functions within the same business will feel the effects of Covid-19 differently. The finance function is at the forefront of this crisis, with revenue streams and business operations taking varying degrees of impact. It is safe to say that no business has been exempt from the financial impacts of this ‘black swan’ event.
Organisations that had a sound crisis management structure and regular drills may have found themselves relatively more well-prepared for the pandemic, but this crisis has thrown much traditional thinking out of the window and has pressurised leaders to take more ad-hoc approaches to crisis mitigation and management.
Some organisations that have an outsourced finance department have found that their routine crisis management plan served them well even though these were designed with fire, floods or terrorism in mind. Emergency stocks of laptops were able to be deployed quickly and ensuring business continuity.
With the disruption of supply chains and pressures on procurement for many organisations, the Finance department has found itself stepping out of usual boundaries to help on projects no matter how big or small. Heroism has been celebrated with many employees getting ‘hands-on’ with tasks such as procuring PPE for employees in the service sector.
Some organisations rapidly broke down their priorities into five areas: operational delivery, invoicing, getting paid, paying employees and suppliers. Activities outside of these five areas would need to be heavily scrutinised before gaining approval.
Underpinning these priorities is liquidity, which is the number one focus for Finance. Some CFOs have requested a daily report and 14-week rolling cash forecasts updated weekly. These reports are fed to the board for further discussion and analysis.
Another element of robust crisis response is agility. Businesses that fail to adapt quickly to fast-moving circumstances in this pandemic will fall through the cracks. One example of agile movement is a ‘speedy boarding’ process to expedite recruitment and remove bureaucracy. Pace injected to such business processes will need to be carried over post-pandemic to ensure that synergies discovered today are continued in the future.
Firms that are listed have deployed multiple methods to communicate their situation and stabilise market reaction. Some have withdrawn their dividends and formal guidance, as well as deferring senior management bonuses. CFOs have overseen regular contact with analysts and investors to navigate through the short and medium impacts of the pandemic.
Regardless of business size and nature, Finance teams need to put a strong emphasis on communication and employee well-being. Some CFOs have organised ‘all hands’ calls for the whole Finance department apart from regular leadership team calls. Many have noted the increased efficiency and ease of virtual calls as the confines of travel schedules are torn down.
Finance reporting to the board has generally become more frequent, with weekly reports and virtual updates every two weeks. Across the organisation, Finance has taken the lead to push for more decentralised decision-making and transparency.
Many traditional working methods have been upended and have given way to nimble approaches. Many such innovations come from ‘bottom up’, with employees finding out ways to be more effective in resource-tight circumstances.
As companies settle into ‘business unusual’ for the foreseeable future, new agile processes need to be documented and streamlined in order to deliver predictable outcomes. At the same time, CFOs need to make sure that new processes have appropriate controls while ensuring that new controls do not get in the way of innovation. In some organisations, the Internal Audit team has been focusing on processes and analytics instead of traditional audit work, conducting reviews virtually in real-time.
Many firms have proved to themselves that there is another way of working. More flexibility and agility will be permanently introduced to working practices, with many more people working from home. Robotics and artificial intelligence may still be the key to delivering value and efficiency in the future, but this pandemic has shown once again that human ingenuity is what makes a difference in challenging times.
Those that can weather the financial impact of this crisis, no matter how different the organisation will have become at the end of this crisis, will be changed for the better. CFOs that take the lead in identifying value-delivering gaps and innovative practices will become more adept at not only their day-to-day job but also the strategic leadership of their organisations.
With special thanks to Oliver Canning, Chief Legal Counsel, NBCU International
Remote working during COVID-19 has pulled departments and colleagues further apart physically, but in many ways they have never been so close. With face-to-face communication off the table, many Legal teams are finding that more effort needs to be put into communicating effectively in order to achieve desired results. For global businesses, this often means that their geographically dispersed teams have come much closer together compared to a few months ago.
Just like other functions, the Legal department faces tremendous challenges in these turbulent times. Leadership support through change and uncertainty is paramount, especially when both working methods and market fundamentals are being ruthlessly uprooted. The focus on mental wellbeing, ‘soft skills’ and communication has been a focus of many GCs across sectors.
One of the top priorities for GCs, whom Winmark reached out to, was analysing contracts and reviewing force majeure clauses, terminations and suspension rights. Impact assessment with regards to supply chain disruptions also need to be carried out. Internally, Legal leaders are starting to consider what a return to the office looks like for their overall businesses and Legal teams.
The disruption of COVID-19 has opened up many opportunities for the Legal function to review their internal resource allocation. There has been a focus on shifting resources to over-worked areas in order to reduce stress. At NBCUniversal, the Legal function has organised exchanges to match supply and demand across the group and locations, enabling cross-business moves.
Many GCs have found that their communications increased substantially since the lockdown, and even earlier for businesses that have a global footprint. These increased communications have a common focus: building a well-rounded Legal function, with a particular emphasis on crucial ‘soft’ skills, such as guidance on how to give advice or find solutions and how to be a strategic business advisor by analysing and managing risk. Regular virtual sessions address themes like work-life balance and building mental resilience, as well as celebrating personal and professional highlights across the team.
At NBCUniversal, group meetings have ramped up. The biggest change is a biweekly Q&A session for all legal personnel, held by the GC. The Chief Legal Counsel then holds a ‘close-up’ session for all non-US lawyers every two weeks, connecting all overseas offices such as those in China, Singapore, Australia and Russia.
While remote working technologies have been on the scene for quite some while, many Legal leaders find that the rapid adoption of these technologies have finally proven the potential and capabilities of remote working. It would have taken Legal departments protracted lengths of time to have everyone join Microsoft Teams and start using Docu-sign, but this period of enforced homeworking have allowed for universal adoption in mere days at some organisations. It is clear that remote working can be carried out successfully and effectively. While many businesses have been developing an agile approach in certain areas of their businesses, this period has elevated remote working to a new level.
With blanket remote working comes new challenges and problems. With normal meetings replaced by video, some organisations have also experienced an overload of video meetings. A good guiding principle is that if that meeting would have been in person or a conference call, then video should be used. Otherwise, normal email and internal messaging should be used.
Separation coupled with a drastic change in communication methods may cause mental strain among colleagues. Structure and creativity needs to be introduced, for example trying to recreate the feeling of being in the office by having team huddles to kick off each day and to organise work. At NBCUniversal, there are team virtual drinks and quizzes each Friday night, together with internal competitions, sharing pictures of home offices and virtual ‘bringing your kids to work days’.
Legal leaders must focus on their colleagues’ wellbeing during this period, as much of human communication via body language becomes ‘invisible’. Some colleagues may feel isolated as they are away from family or away from their main hubs, and some may actually be ill. Some colleagues need to juggle work and looking after children. Normally ‘tough’ workers are no less vulnerable to the new kinds of anxiety and fear that may kick in, as all workers are facing unprecedented situations. To this end, NBCUniversal have been working with clinical psychologists to look at building resilience with their teams.
To learn more about mental resilience and wellbeing during these times of isolation, check out recent Winmark webinars on maintaining mental health and the difference between mental strength and resilience.
With special thanks to Kate Mackie, Global integrated Go-To-Market Leader, EY
The pandemic has fundamentally changed how businesses operate, and how they communicate with clients and customers. With face to face interaction increasingly replaced by virtual communications, many organisations need to rapidly adapt to this new paradigm in order to maintain trust and reputation.
Contrary to initial expectations at the onset of the pandemic, marketers found that sales through digital channels accelerated hugely. Increased customer demand for clear digital communications and diversified offerings have led CMOs to rethink their digital strategy and how to weave real authenticity into brand communications. The renewed emphasis on digital also allows marketers a golden chance to influence C-Suite conversations on a deeper level.
Racial tensions and climate change are just some of society’s pressing issues demanding positive responses from businesses. The ‘millennial’ generation increasingly refuses to buy from brands that are not taking an active stance in societal issues, and this has been pushing organisations to step up to the challenge of delivering on their social promises.
The pandemic is yet another social crisis that demands effective and authentic responses from businesses. Clients and customers are questioning, more than ever, if companies are living to the promises they make. Marketers need to establish within the C-Suite an aligned understanding of brand values and social promises, so that their organisations’ values are lived and breathed by every element of the business.
The pandemic has accelerated the prevalence of digital consumer behaviour, and marketers need to rapidly adapt to the different demands of a completely digital sales environment. For example, banks were not able to offer 24-hour contact since call centre workers could not come into the office during the early stages of the pandemic. This means that the business needs to revert to a solely digital relationship at pace.
There are many lessons to be learnt in this abrupt shift to a completely digital environment. Personal relationships are maintained very differently in the absence of physical interaction and the opportunity to read body language. Digital communication, which is often aimed at a wide audience, needs to be calibrated so that it feels personable to the recipient.
To maintain customer relationships and engage potential buyers in this turbulent period, marketers need to innovate how they reach their audience and captivate them. While webinars have always existed as a way for mass virtual communication, the proliferation of similar and competing events means that organisations need to make such virtual events more interesting, engaging and differentiated, especially for people who are not in an existing commercial relationship.
More data will undoubtedly be collected in this digital environment, enabling the marketing function to be a repository of a huge amount of insight. This can help businesses quickly identify pain points in their customer experience, and deliver quick solutions to minimise client frustration and improve satisfaction.
One of the big frustrations with almost every marketer during this difficult period is the pace of change and the level of uncertainty. With businesses operating on shifting sands and events unfolding on a day-by-day basis, hard-won alignment between Marketing and other parts of the business may seem to evaporate quickly.
With many parts of the business operating digitally, marketers need to adapt quickly to this different way of doing business and establish trust with multiple contact points in order to make themselves heard. CMOs have also noted that project management and cross-functional communication skills are now more important than ever, as the crisis pressures businesses to act quickly as a whole with a small margin of error. Clear documentation and thorough operation mapping becomes a necessity more than ever, but this should not hamper agility and employee creativity.
Some marketers have also noted that an all-digital sales environment has given them more leverage at boardroom conversations in recent months, as more access to data means more incisive insight into digital pipelines and customer journeys. Success on this front demands not just the capability to capture data, but also on leaders’ ability to interpret, understand and add value to collected data. View a recent Winmark webinar on data and commercial decision-making to see how other C-Suite leaders are harnessing the power of data during Covid-19.
With special thanks to Haidée Klein, Head of HR – Europe, GLP
Apart from the Finance department, HR is arguably one of the hardest-hit functions of any business in this pandemic. The question of where and how people work instantly became an existential issue for many HR leaders, with many having to extend their questioning into who works – i.e. the unfortunate circumstance of having to decide on furlough or redundancy.
With most of the working world adopting new practices, employees are also experiencing a new relationship with their work. HR leaders can deliver most value in the coming months and years by capturing which changes will become permanent and which will only be fleeting. It is now a great time for HR leaders to lead on the building of new sustainable ways of working for organisations and their people.
What employees are really looking for in this period of physical isolation and distance is clear communication from leaders, as well as opportunities for two-way dialogue. While meetings like town-halls usually occur monthly, the pandemic has made frequent and up-to-date communication an imperative. Many organisations have shifted to bi-weekly or even weekly town-halls, allowing employees to gain more face time with leaders in order to learn about the latest developments and also raise suggestions and concerns.
With many meetings moved onto virtual platforms, the traditional hierarchy of communication is slightly broken down. The division between those that do the speaking and those that are spoken to is dissolved on screen: everyone is equal and everyone can chip in without the pressures of physically speaking. While functions such as muting people are being used to make meetings more efficient, leaders need to make sure that advancements in communication made during the pandemic such as increased transparency and heightened employee engagement make their way into their organisations post-pandemic.
One of the most reported ‘revelations’ from HR leaders in this pandemic is that the new ways of working which started out of necessity have evolved into virtue. This is not just remote working which has already been a staple for many organisations, but also the thinking and practice around the meaning of office and work, as well as employee autonomy and productivity.
The idea that employees can only be productive when they are visible in the office has been thrown out of the window during the pandemic. In fact, employee autonomy and the reduced distractions of the office may have contributed to increased productivity.
While this is not to say that office interaction is an impediment to work, this raises the question of how office environments should be reshaped in the coming months and years. While many HR leaders recognise that many organisations will drastically cut their office footprint, they must make themselves heard in the coming conversations around what to do with the remaining space: is the office going to be just a hub for a rotating workforce, or should it be a place where remote working employees can enter at will in order to replenish creativity and interact with colleagues?
Reports of heightened employee stress levels abound as a large part of the workforce is forced to adapt to a new way of working. While many organisations have implemented flexible working years before the pandemic, the enforced character of lockdown remote working has taken its toll on employee well-being. One of the key issues for CHROs to get right is the delicate balance between expanding employees’ sense of autonomy with the need to offer deeper levels of communal care.
As one of the most multicultural countries in the world, the UK is home to many European and overseas workers who could not travel back to their families during the pandemic. Many employees find themselves only able to communicate virtually at a time when intimate connection becomes a necessity. Some may even be living alone, deprived of normal levels of social interaction. CHROs have taken the lead to address these issues, with many organisations implementing confidential employee helplines, offering financial, well-being and health advice to help colleagues go through these difficult times as a community.
Organisational culture also needs to be rapidly shifted: with many working from home, people need to be sensitive to the fact that their colleagues have drastically different working environments, ranging from being completely alone to vying for desk space with eight other flatmates. Others with childcare commitments may need to intersperse work with parental duties, resulting in complex working patterns and intermittent reachability. One of the mantras during this period is to be kind to each other, and HR leaders will have done well if this mantra extends itself beyond the pandemic and becomes a cornerstone of their organisational cultures.
With special thanks to Barbara Dossetter, Managing Director – Advisory Services, CIO Connect Singapore
The past few months has put organisations at a greater level of cyber risk than ever before, with the global pandemic disrupting digital operations and upending traditional cybersecurity practices. Setting, managing and tracking digital risk appetites became a key challenge for CIOs, and organisations will need to adopt new ways of thinking about cybersecurity.
By rethinking cyber risk appetites, security practices and thinking ahead, CIOs will be able to get a better footing when dealing with increasingly kaleidoscopic risk and potential incidents.
One of the biggest challenges of organisational cybersecurity is how risk appetites are set, i.e. how much risk is acceptable. Risk management in relation to cyber security is only just starting to become a top priority for many boards, with many C-Suite and board-level teams relying on traditional thinking in other areas of risk management.
The burning question in this area for CIOs is ‘how do we keep our information and communication technology services going when there is little or no revenue coming into the business?’ CIOs are increasingly aware that the answer is not total security – the aim to achieve zero breaches and security incidents. Total security wastes money, and the pivot towards resilience is what dominates today’s thinking. This means the assurance that most essential business continues despite whatever crisis happens.
An ‘attack surface’ is the point of exposure where adversaries can target a business and deliver damage. In this pandemic, attack surfaces have rapidly shifted and grown as the majority of office workers shift to homeworking.
Without the guarantees that a secure on-site network, workers connecting to their businesses via home internet connections are more susceptible to vulnerabilities and attacks. Home addresses and other personal information can be easily collected by attackers using basic equipment. Once compromised, these connections function the same as the ‘real’ connection.
Cyber crime damages are projected to become equivalent to the GDP of the world's third largest economy by 2021. The pandemic has accelerated the shift to digital and that means businesses need to rapidly rethink their approaches to security. This rethink is urgently needed, not just because of the pandemic but also because of the accelerated arrival of the fourth industrial revolution. Traditional workplace and customer relations will be transformed, and so will the risks.
Now is the time to update your business continuity plan. Most organisations have a cyber crisis plan, but a surprisingly small number have a business continuity plan that addresses cybersecurity specifically. To successfully address this, good leadership becomes incredibly important.
The role of leaders is to coordinate the efforts of people to result in a good outcome. Effective communication is pivotal to the success of any cybersecurity strategy. Colleagues need a clear direction and leaders need to provide confidence and intent.
Some key actions to take now in order to address the risk gap include:
Embrace the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle of employees. This entails a more segmented cloud architecture where tools and services can be rapidly onboarded and utilised.
Understand the business impacts of the pandemic and set clear expectations with vendors in contracts. Set clear KPIs to judge whether vendors are delivering well.
Be prepared for the fact that the organisations’ data will become more dispersed around the globe. Understand what sits where, and consider enhanced encryption and lower data retention periods.
With the second wave of the pandemic hitting the UK and multiple parts of the globe, there are even more actions for CIOs to take to ensure a sound deployment of cyber risk strategy:
Enhance and increase executive-level communications and hold frequent crisis management sessions.
Expect that a disaster is incoming and adequately prepare for that.
Examine customer and stakeholder impacts and include more meaningful risk calculations.
Conduct regular continuity and crisis drills at least annually. Set realistic scenarios and incident response protocols.
Examine suppliers and supply chains and establish a programme to reduce third-party risk.
Engage with regulators and law enforcement and learn from past cases.
While unsettling, this period of crisis will allow organisations to fortify their defences for the future. CIOs must take a lead and increase the visibility of cyber security within their organisations’ wider risk strategy.
An interview with Darren Carlile, Head of Customer Operations, Capital One
The pandemic has made remote-working an instant imperative for many companies. Apart from the HR function, the Operations function is arguably the second-most affected part of the business when it comes to ensuring service continuity internally and externally. In this interview, Darren Carlile at Capital One reflects on how their Operations function adapted to the changing situation and some collective learnings within their organisation.
Most of the issues keeping me busy revolve around our people. The initial focus was trying to ensure we had enough of our front line support teams set-up to work from home effectively and provide our customers with the support they need through these difficult times. Now our focus is turning to how we work effectively across the whole operation including our support functions. Given that this model is likely to persist for a while, we're trying to get people thinking more proactively about the future.
We've seen our associates as our top priority through the outbreak, and while I'm a lot happier now that our teams are working from home, I am concerned about some of the challenges that our teams are facing in juggling work and home commitments in this new working model, and the pressure that could put on people's mental health.
Working from home has been the main enabler, and we were fortunate that we had a few key things in place beforehand. We had a number of remote working tools such as Zoom and Google Hangouts used very regularly, and all those tools and more basic ones such as VPN were well set-up in terms of capacity so we were able to scale them pretty quickly.
We've definitely focused a lot on communication channels to keep our employees fully up to speed on how things are changing both for them and our customers. We've also tried to recreate some of the more informal interactions and office-based fun with weekly Zoom-based calls. Our HR teams have also done a lot of work to support our people managers and try and gather a really good understanding of the challenges faced by our employees and how best to support them.
We definitely made a very conscious decision early on to invest in very regular communications from the CEO and then down through the organisation, which at the start of the outbreak was multiple times a week. That's reduced gradually over time, but within Operations we've maintained more regular leadership calls throughout the week to try and fill the gap created by the lack of 'side-of-desk' conversations, and maintained a weekly department update call to share updates with the wider team.
We've made similar moves to many across the industry in terms of using a range of communication channels to communicate with our customers, including emails, messages through our digital servicing channels and specific messages through our automated voice systems. We've also continued our regular supplier reviews and communications to be transparent about the changing priorities for our business and to build our understanding as to the challenges that they're also facing.
We immediately invoked our crisis management team structure, which continues to meet on a regular (albeit slightly less frequent) basis. We had a fairly well-rehearsed playbook in terms of the governance of decisions, but it did need a few minor adaptations due to the pace of decisions that we needed to make. One of the key things we frequently focused on was getting absolute clarity on who the ultimate decision maker was, and then trying to ensure a very small support group required to inform that decision. We realised very early on that there were far too many decisions to be made by committee.
I think I've been most surprised at the ease at which people have settled into working from home. We all remember being the lone person dialling into a meeting remotely and the challenges that presented, and in many ways this crisis has been a great leveller in the sense that everyone is now in that same position. It's meant that we've really quickly needed to work out new norms in terms of how people are heard in meetings, like raising virtual hands or using chat functions for questions. We've also been trying to use the start of conversations to inject a bit of the social interaction into what often feels like a more formal way of working. The team have been fantastic at looking out for each other and raising concerns, and I think that really comes from having a very strong employee focused culture.
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