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Spotlight

Chartered Accountants play a critical role in operations around the world, and many are now guiding their organisations through the uncertainty and economic turmoil wreaked by COVID-19. Accountancy Ireland spoke to several members at the fore of this difficult task. Liam Woods  Director of Acute Operations at the HSE As a member of NPHET (the National Public Health Emergency Team) and with responsibility for the public hospital system in the Republic of Ireland, Liam Woods has played a central role in the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In normal circumstances, Liam oversees acute services and the deployment of a €6 billion budget for the acute hospital system, which covers 48 hospitals across the country. Today, however, he is at the forefront of the public health system’s response to the global pandemic. Liam and his colleagues have worked relentlessly since December 2019, when the first case of coronavirus became known. “At that time, we were aware that there was an emerging set of concerning circumstances in China,” he said. “We are linked in with the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control through the Department of Health, so we began receiving information on the situation almost immediately.” According to Liam, the threat to Ireland was confirmed by the Italian experience, with Ireland’s first case confirmed in late February 2020. This in turn led to an escalation of the pre-existing national crisis management structures. “Once we saw Italy’s crisis unfold, we implemented the HSE emergency management structures and assessed emerging scenarios and the subsequent requirements for intensive care capacity, acute capacity, and community capacity,” he added. “As March approached, we expected a major surge in cases of COVID-19. That surge did occur, but we didn’t see the levels experienced by Italy and that was primarily down to the public health measures taken in February and March.” As the pandemic progressed, areas under Liam’s remit such as the National Ambulance Service became increasingly critical elements of the response strategy. But as the pressure increased, so too did staff absence. “Today (30 April), 2,800 colleagues are absent in the acute system with a further 2,000 absent in the community system related to COVID-19,” he said. “That is a big challenge for the frontline, as is the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). Our procurement teams are working night and day to secure the necessary equipment to protect our workers.” That effort has been supplemented by the overwhelming generosity of individuals and businesses according to Liam. “We had a massive response from the business community and society as a whole, from distillery companies manufacturing antibacterial hand gel to people making face shields using 3D printers,” he added. “Beating this virus has become a truly collective effort and those working in the HSE really felt and appreciated that.” Although restrictions are now being cautiously eased, Liam expects the workload to remain relentless. “At a personal level, it is demanding but if you work in the health system and understand how it needs to operate, you at least feel that you can make a direct contribution and a lot of positivity comes from that. The response of frontline staff in hospital and community services has been amazing and the commitment to delivering care has been key to the success to date in responding to what is a global crisis.” Tia Crowley  CEO at Western Care Tia Crowley had an “unusual” induction to the role of CEO at Western Care, as her appointment coincided with Leo Varadkar’s statement in Washington on the first wave of measures to tackle COVID-19 in Ireland. Given that her organisation provides services and supports to adults and children with intellectual disabilities and/or autism in Co. Mayo, Tia was very conscious of the need for – and challenges to – the provision of her organisation’s services. “When the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed initially, we risk-assessed all areas of service provision and made the difficult decision to close day/respite services and limit community support services to essential supports that could be provided safely,” she said. Many of the organisation’s 950 staff were reassigned to support Western Care’s residential services, which now operate on a 24-hour basis. According to Tia, maintaining an optimum level of service while securing adequate PPE for frontline workers is a constant concern – but there are longer-term challenges in the horizon. “I, and the new management team, had hoped to bring in a balanced budget for 2020 after prolonged periods of cutbacks, deficits and containment cycles. However, a shock 1% cut to funding allocations across the sector coupled with the impact of COVID-19 will impact our ability to meet the demand for our services within our existing allocation,” she said. “The cost of the crisis, and the associated long-term implication for funding, is a challenge that is constantly on our minds. But at the moment, our focus has to remain on keeping our service users and staff safe.” Aside from financing, one thing preventing organisations like Western Care operating to their full potential is an overly burdensome compliance regime, Tia added. “I hope the Government recognises how organisations like Western Care responded to this crisis and the support they provided to the HSE when it was most needed,” she continued. “After the worst of this crisis passes, I would like to see a streamlined regulatory environment where, once an organisation is deemed to comply with a basic set of standards, that is accepted by all regulators. We, like others, struggle to comply with multiple regulators and compliance regimes and at last count, more than 35 different regimes applied to Western Care.” Despite the many challenges, Tia has noticed certain positives amid the bleak backdrop. “The atmosphere of cooperation throughout the organisation has reinforced my belief in human nature and I hear stories of resilience among service users, families and staff who have gone over and above to support families in crisis and keep service users happy and content,” she said. “We are also building supportive relationships with the HSE locally as we turn to them for support and guidance. But equally, we provide them with reassurance and support too because we are all in this together.” Ultimately, Tia’s hope for the future is a simple one. “I hope that we can emerge from this pandemic with a sense of pride and renewed purpose, knowing that we have come through one of the most significant events in our lifetime and that everyone in Western Care did their best.” Dermot Crowley  Dalata Hotel Group Dalata Hotel Group was quick to respond to the threat of coronavirus to its business. From cancelling its shareholder dividend to renegotiating with lenders, the company has cut its cloth and according to Dermot Crowley, Deputy Chief Executive, Dalata is well-positioned to weather a long storm. “We have always been very careful with our gearing and as things stand, we have access to €145 million in funding,” he said. “We immediately created a worst-case scenario of zero revenue for the remainder of the year. We examined every cost item and calculated our cash burn. The major fixed costs are elements of payroll, rent and interest. Having done that exercise, we were in a position to reassure our shareholders that we could survive at least until the end of the year on a zero-revenue model.” As it happens, the company is still generating revenue. Dalata raised a further €65 million in April when it sold its Clayton Charlemont Hotel in a sale and leaseback transaction and although most of the company’s hotels are formally closed, Dalata responded to requests from governments and health agencies to accommodate frontline workers, asylum seekers and the homeless – often at much-reduced costs. Meanwhile, all other hotels have management and maintenance teams in place to ensure that all properties are ready to re-open at short notice. While some workers remain, the company was forced to lay-off 3,500 staff at the outset of the crisis, but Dermot is determined to re-employ as many people as possible as restrictions ease and trading conditions improve. “One of the most frustrating things about this crisis is letting our people go. We invest a huge amount in our staff and last year alone, we had 350 colleagues in development programmes. We also take on 35 people each year through graduate programmes and we have several trainee Chartered Accountants in our employ,” he said. “We absolutely want to take everyone back on.” Despite the company’s preparations for the ‘new normal’, whatever (and whenever) that might be, Dermot remains cautious in his outlook for the sector. “Dalata is a very ambitious company and we have a lot of new hotels in the pipeline, but the reality is that we are likely to be facing lower occupancies once the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “When we re-open, the domestic market will be the first part of the business to recover but the international market could take quite some time depending on travel restrictions.” At its AGM at the end of April, the company confirmed that earnings fell almost 25% in the first three months of the year to €17.7 million. With even worse results certain for the period after 31 March and normality a distant prospect, Dermot expects the sector to experience both tragedy and opportunity in the months ahead. “Some companies will not make it through this crisis and that’s just reality,” he said. “That will create some opportunities. We built a strong company after the last crisis, but I do not see the same fallout in Ireland as in the UK this time around. The UK has many old properties and companies with high gearing ratios, so that may be where the most changes will occur.” Naomi Holland International Treasurer at Intel As International Treasurer and Senior Director of Tax at Intel, Naomi Holland had a demanding role before COVID-19 became a threat, but her role has since expanded as she – and her colleagues – seek to protect the chipmaker and its people from the threat posed by coronavirus. As leader of Intel’s Global Tax & Treasury Virus Task Force, Naomi also sits on the Global Finance Virus Task Force, which develops and implements Intel’s crisis response for the corporation’s worldwide finance function. This is not just a strategic project for Naomi, however. Her global role means that she has direct responsibility for employees in some of the worst affected areas of the world. “I have teams based in China where we were dealing with the outbreak from early 2020,” she said. While it was largely restricted at that stage, the China situation effectively became a test-run for the global pandemic that was to come.” Some employee considerations included colleagues who had returned home for the Chinese New Year and became confined to their province, others were on secondment outside their home country and Intel needed to assess the return home versus the remain in situ options, and some countries’ lockdown notice was so short that staff ended up not returning home to their families and were confined alone. In the early days of the crisis, Naomi and her colleagues engaged in extensive scenario planning. They considered single sites closing down, multiple sites closing down, and the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on the organisation’s operability. That led to a rationalisation of activity to ensure that critical functions remained up and running. “In addition to ensuring that we had the necessary contingencies in place should a person, team or site fall victim to COVID-19, it was also essential that we prioritised our activity,” she said. “This required significant coordination as we needed to ensure that our partner organisations around the world were satisfied with what remained on our priority list and, importantly, what didn’t.” This required extensive communication, which was central to Intel’s response according to Naomi. “We were acutely aware that people needed information,” she said. “So, we focused on our internal communications and developed a ‘people’ track to complement that.” This was particularly important for Naomi, whose team spans several countries including Ireland, the Netherlands, Israel, India, and China. Her leaderhip remit meant the US teams were also on her agenda. Despite the complexity, Intel’s quick response meant that the company “didn’t miss a beat”, according to Naomi. “COVID-19 has forced all companies to assess items including their liquidity, their work-from-home capability, and their technological infrastructure,” she added. “We took all the necessary decisions, amended procedures as required and augmented our hardware in places. The greater complexity, of course, resided within our factory and logistics networks but I am proud to say that their delivery can only be described as incredible.” As the shock factor subsides and people increasingly become resigned to the prospect of living and working alongside COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, Naomi is determined to maintain her focus on her people and their mental health. “I’ve always said that people are a company’s best asset and if this crisis has taught me anything, it’s in our augmented ability to deliver when we operate as one team despite the circumstances,” she said. “The first six months of 2020 have been a traumatic time for many. However, with senior executives leading from the front and maintaining communication with their people, this crisis is in fact humanising us and helping us connect with our colleagues on a more personal level.” Shauna Burns Managing Director at Beyond Business Travel Beyond Business Travel is ten years old this year and like the rest of the travel sector, it faces severe challenges due to COVID-19. According to Shauna Burns, the company’s Managing Director, 2020 was the year the firm planned to reach £20 million in turnover and build on its investment in Ireland following last year’s opening of offices in Dublin and Cork. The impact of the pandemic was felt by the company in February, according to Shauna, when FlyBe entered administration. March then saw the domino effect of countries closing their borders, which presented a unique set of challenges. “We had clients and staff located all over the world, and we had to work 24/7 to ensure they got home quickly,” she said. The company was also involved in the Ireland’s Call initiative to bring home medical professionals to work in the HSE and NHS. After this initial flurry of activity, Shauna and her team had to take both a strategic and forensic view of the business amid a fast-changing business landscape. “Difficult but essential decisions had to be made on operational continuity and cash flow while engaging with our key stakeholders and looking into the potential for financial assistance from Government,” she added. “From the off, we were determined that our company’s core values around excellent customer service would not change. We retained some key staff to provide ongoing information and to ensure that clients who urgently need to travel can do so. This comes at a financial cost in terms of maintaining our premises and fixed overheads, but it is a decision we believe will benefit the business in the long run.” With one eye on the easing of travel restrictions, Shauna’s firm is also compiling information and advice for companies whose people must resume travel, so that they make informed decisions and manage the impact of COVID-19 on their business. The travel industry will re-open and travellers will take to the air again, she said, but they will travel less often and with an increased focus on traveller health and safety. “We expect to operate below capacity for the immediate future, so part-time furlough allows us to raise activity in line with demand,” she said. “Consequently, we are looking at our offering and service lines, and right-sizing our business for the ‘new normal’. There are opportunities to become leaner, faster, and more efficient, and digitalisation is a core element of that process. “We now have an opportunity to ask ourselves if the business were starting from scratch, what would we do differently and reimagine what this looks like ,” she added. “But for our business, restoring confidence in the safety of air travel is a vital pre-requisite to enabling recovery and with more than one third of global trade by value moving by air, it will also be vital for the recovery of the global economy.” The entrepreneurs Growing businesses with finite resources are very vulnerable to economic shocks, but one Chartered Accountant is using technology to weather the storm. Fiona Smiddy, Founder of Green Outlook, had three active revenue streams before the onset of COVID-19 – e-commerce, markets/event retail, and corporate services including speaking engagements. She is now down to one viable revenue stream, but the growth in online retail has allowed her company to grow during the pandemic. Fiona runs a tight ship from a cost perspective. She outsourced her order fulfilment activity in 2019 and engaged the services of a ‘virtual CFO’ who keeps her focused on her KPIs. “Green Outlook turned one year old at the end of March and the key challenge remains brand awareness and cash flow management,” she said. “The company is self-funded with no outside investment or loans, so I am restricted to organic growth.” Green Outlook continues to support Irish suppliers, with 22 Irish brands represented among the more than 170 sustainable, plastic-free products available online, and Fiona cites this as a contributory factor in her success. “I have noticed a huge uplift in supporting local and Irish businesses and I hope this continues post-COVID-19,” she said. Brendan Halpin, Founder of WeSwitchU.ie, also hopes to support Irish businesses and households in the months ahead. He launched his new company in March 2020, just as the lockdown came into effect, but having spent 2019 in the development phase, he is certain that now is the right time to launch a cost-saving business. WeSwicthU.ie is a digital platform that finds the best electricity and gas energy plan for individual households each year and even as COVID-19 reached Ireland, Brendan did not consider it a threat to his business. “It was pandemic-proof in a sense because our entire proposition is online. From the comfort of your home, the platform takes the stress and hassle out of switching and saving money on customers’ home electricity and gas bills,” he added. “The only change in the business plan was on the marketing side; I had intended to be out and about meeting people, but that activity simply moved online.” While the market reaction has been positive so far, Brendan is conscious that any planned expansion would require funding – and that may be a challenge as the economic malaise becomes more entrenched. “I have funded the business myself so far but if I really want to grow, the next step will involve external financing,” he said. “I do hope that the Government and State agencies will help start-ups like mine grow through their relevant phases despite the uncertainty that lies ahead.”

Jun 02, 2020
Careers

Building a culture of inclusion and belonging is now more important than ever. Rachel Power shares her insights from PwC’s experience thus far. Not that long ago, we were all clear on our plans. Our strategies were set, with events and meetings scheduled in the diversity and inclusion calendar for the year ahead. All the behaviours and operating norms we took for granted changed in what seemed like the flick of a switch. COVID-19 has led to new terms in the diversity and inclusion (D&I) world, which we would not have understood just a few months ago. The main one at the heart of PwC’s strategy is ‘inclusive distancing’ – how can we all be more inclusive while maintaining a distance that is outside the norm. Another element that is core to our current D&I work is just how little has changed. While our medium may differ, the core elements of our strategy remain the same around inclusion, wellness and flexibility and focusing on tools and training for the future. Our long-standing D&I values have helped us navigate through this crisis, and this was supported in no small part by our investment in technology.  More important than ever Several items already high on our strategic agenda have helped us navigate and transition relatively seamlessly into this new remote working world, in which building on our culture of inclusion and belonging is more important than ever. Our D&I focus was on three areas before the arrival of COVID-19, and all three ring true during this time: Nurturing an environment of inclusion and belonging; Living our values, putting wellness and flexibility at the core; and Leveraging tools and training for the future. We set these objectives before the pandemic, but they are still as relevant now as ever. Transforming our workforce and the way we work requires us to have diverse, talented people from different backgrounds; people who have different experiences and who bring innovation, creativity, and fresh perspectives. No one size fits all This new era of working remotely – or smart working, as we call it – brings challenges that can present in different ways for our diverse team. We are all different, with distinct personal circumstances, and deal with problems in unique ways. Some people are balancing work and caring for their family; others may be away from their family and friends. Some have family on the front line, relatives who have been sick, or family members who may not be well. A one-size approach certainly does not fit all. While many of us worked flexibly before the crisis, our approach to flexibility has been taken to a new level. Arrangements that worked in the past are in many cases no longer viable, as many of our people now balance many things including work. The new world of flexible working may, therefore, involve doing some work very early and then taking a couple of hours during the day for caring responsibilities or exercise, before returning to work later. It is all about balance and finding ways to make it work. Again, this comes back to having inclusive and values-based leaders and ensuring that the right conversations happen so that the solutions work for everyone. Focus on wellbeing Focusing on the wellbeing of our people, particularly to support those struggling with a diverse range of circumstances, has been at the top of our priority list at PwC. Through our Be Well, Work Well programme, we provide a variety of supports including one-to-one psychologist sessions, parenting, nutrition and fitness classes, and we continue to host regular wellbeing seminars. Communicating regularly with our people, and in different ways, has been vital. From transforming our intranet into a ‘smart hub for smart working’ to regular emails, leadership briefings and FAQs, we continue to foster a culture of inclusion. There is undoubtedly more to do as the end to this pandemic is far from sight. However, our values, strategic direction, and technology will help steer us through this and ultimately strengthen D&I throughout our firm and beyond. Rachel Power is Diversity & Inclusion Senior Manager at PwC Ireland.

Jun 02, 2020
Careers

Ronan Dunne draws on his experience at the highest echelons of business to share his six leadership lessons. When I first worked in London as a banker, I was promoted three times in a period of about 15 months. I was an eager and highly qualified Chartered Accountant but in the first 12 months I worked late every evening. Then, I started working on Saturday and Sunday. I worked my socks off and for the first year, it was a remarkably successful strategy – but then, I hit a wall. I had no more capacity. It was a completely unsustainable model and it did not take me long to realise that unless I could invent an eighth day in the week, I would need to change my management style. The lessons that follow are based on my experience as a Chartered Accountant in business, and one who often had to learn lessons the hard way. Some may be more relevant to you than others, but I nevertheless hope that you find them useful. Lesson 1: It is not what you do, it is what you make happen When Chartered Accountants start out in their careers, they are largely personal contributors. They have a very specific role and success is defined by the outcome or the output of their particular job. Increasingly, however, we realise that this approach is based on an old-fashioned, hierarchical business model. In modern society, and for millennials in particular, painting inside the lines is not an attractive proposition – even in your first job. So, discover as early as possible in your career that your success does not just depend exclusively on what you do; it also hinges on what you make happen. Your capacity to impact and influence is infinite but your output is simply defined by hours in the day, no matter how hard and fast you work. At every point in your career, you have the opportunity to impact and influence those around you. Key takeaway: Take the opportunity to make a difference when it comes your way. Lesson 2: To be an effective leader, build an effective team The capacity to exceed expectations lies in how you blend the skills and capabilities of those around you. Effective teams do not simply do what any other team would; effective teams harness the unique talent, perspectives, and experience of their individual members in a way that enables the collective to achieve outcomes that would not otherwise be possible. When considering team formation, we sometimes think “I need someone for finance, someone for marketing, someone for legal” and so on. But actually, if you build a team correctly, you create space for each person to bring their own personality and their own unique perspective to the team. That is the secret ingredient to superior outcomes. Key takeaway: Every person within the team has a unique contribution to make. Lesson 3: Exercise judgement as to when to exercise judgement This might sound like a play on words but in my experience, people early in their career often have a desire to impress their superiors. They sometimes seek out opportunities to act decisively, to jump in and make a decision in order to demonstrate that they have what it takes to be a manager or a leader. In fact, they often demonstrate their inexperience by attempting to find a moment to showcase their decisiveness and by consequence, unwittingly illustrate their impatience. Very often, the wisest thing to do is to explain why a decision cannot be made due to a lack of information or context, for example. By all means, look for opportunities to exercise judgement but remember that judgement can sometimes be best exercised by not deciding and explaining why. Key takeaway: When meeting with senior executives, remember that rushing to make an impact may make you look like an idiot. Lesson 4: Leadership should happen at every level In business, decisions are best made closest to the point of impact. An effective organisation therefore ensures that those who make decisions have the right context and the discretion to decide, because hierarchy on its own does not always work. In a team, the most senior member is not always the natural leader on a particular topic or project so to be continually effective, teams should encourage those closer to the issue to take the helm. That means cultivating the flexibility to have junior members lead the way. Indeed, the biggest challenge facing larger organisations is their established hierarchical models. Such companies recruit bright, young, and digitally literate people but in too many cases they leave after a year or two because they get completely disillusioned. Despite understanding more about behavioural trends or other issues that may be affecting the business, their opinion is never sought out because they are three or four levels down in the organisation. Leaders need to empower those people and accept a certain amount of risk. There must be permission to fail but even in organisations with a mild risk tolerance, this concept creates a space in which an organisation’s collective potential can be nurtured. Key takeaway: Acknowledging context is critical to effective decision-making. Couple that with delegated authority and permission to fail, and you have a solid foundation for a highly effective organisation. Lesson 5: Authenticity is the gateway to true leadership My view of authenticity is built on two ideas – one is a personal insight and the other builds on the elements discussed above. I became a CEO for the first time with O2 in the UK when we were on the cusp of a major recession. I had a successful career up to that point but when I took over as CEO, I struggled for the first six months because I spent a lot of time wondering what other people would have done in my situation. In many jobs, you are the subject matter expert but as CEO, you are a jack of all trades and often master of none. Then, I had an almost spiritual moment when I realised that I had 27 years of rich experience. It became clear that the only way I could do my job was to be myself. So, as a leader, you need to ask yourself: who are you? People rarely challenge themselves with this question. I describe myself as chief cheerleader and chief storyteller. I am an extrovert, a joiner-upper, an enthusiast – and I use that to be a front-row leader because that just happens to be my natural style. So ultimately, the best way to be successful in any role is to be yourself. The second thing is that when you are the boss, nobody asks you a question that they know the answer to. This leaves you with a strange obligation to know the answer to everything, but CEOs manage uncertainty amid many shades of grey and it can be quite liberating to realise that the CEO can and should say: “You know what, I am concerned about that as well.” If you do that, you help your people work things out, find solutions, and build answers to organisational challenges with a sense of togetherness. Key takeaway: Know your strengths and acknowledge that you do not – and should not – have the answer to every question. Lesson 6: Know the question before you try to answer it There is massive structural impatience in organisations and as a result, I see much more ‘ready, fire, aim’ than ‘ready, aim, fire’. Too often organisations run towards an assumption of what the question (and answer) is; they are in action mode immediately. But a little time working out the precise nature of the question will invariably bring you closer to the answer. Organisations consistently do two things wrong: they press ahead to answer a part-formed question, and they do not allow talent to flourish because hierarchy gets in the way. Key takeaway: Define the question clearly before embarking on the search for an answer. Ronan Dunne FCA is CEO at Verizon Consumer Group.

Jun 02, 2020
Strategy

Caroline Pope considers the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and their relevance as a framework to rebuild resilient companies as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. At present, the full impact of COVID-19 on the Irish and global economy is not yet clear. However, the ability of society to work together towards a common goal has been recognised and should form part of the recovery. In 2015, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) were adopted by all member states. Their purpose is to coordinate efforts to improve human lives, protect the environment, and ensure the sustainable development of our societies. Sustainability may not be the most obvious lens through which one should assess the abnormal events of recent months. Yet trends are emerging, which may make business leaders think more deeply about sustainability in the context of their organisations. Below, we outline three of these factors. The UN SDGs drive increased resilience. There is growing evidence that businesses that have already aligned their strategy with the UN SDGs are more resilient to an economic shock. The UN SDGs are not going away. The future business landscape is uncertain, but increasing evidence points to an operating environment that favours businesses that align with the principles of sustainability. A business strategy aligned with the UN SDGs can create value. Aligning a business strategy with the UN SDGs may seem like a daunting process, but there are well-understood methodologies that can be applied. The UN SDGs drive increased resilience  Businesses that align their core strategy with the UN SDGs (also known as ‘sustainable businesses’) take a broader, stakeholder-based view of their activities. As a result, these businesses tend to demonstrate a deeper understanding of oft-overlooked or under-valued areas of their companies, such as supply chains, and their degree of interconnectedness with society in general. This broader understanding, which is the result of UN SDG alignment, can position them to respond more rapidly to the threats that COVID-19 represents to their stakeholders. In particular, supply chains are coming under increasing pressure due to the global nature of COVID-19, combined with the increasingly international scope of business. The advice from supply chain experts such as Richard Wilding OBE, Professor of Supply Chain Strategy at Cranfield University, is to “urgently review their supply chain to find out how exposed they are… it’s still common for businesses to just deal with a central HQ of a supplier and not know what route the supplies they need are taking”. Full alignment with UN SDG 10, Reduced Inequalities, will drive businesses towards total supply chain transparency; they will know each factory where their inputs are processed and all the intermediate steps along the way. These businesses are in a much better position than those rushing to uncover their true supply chain risks amid a crisis. This seemingly serendipitous point illustrates a key feature of SDG alignment: it is consistent with well-managed operations. Alignment with SDGs has also made companies more resilient. For example, there has been a paradigm shift for many businesses since COVID-19 emerged as they have sought to facilitate organisation-wide remote-working to prevent activity grinding to a halt. Contrast this with sustainable businesses such as Vodafone who, in recent years, saw remote working as a means of advancing Goal 5, Gender Equality, and have already invested in the infrastructure to facilitate this. Finally, sustainable businesses enjoyed a higher degree of investor confidence before the economy shut down and seem to continue to enjoy a higher degree of investor confidence as the shut-down continues. Figures published by Funds Europe suggest that values of European sustainable funds dropped by 10.6%, compared with the “overall European fund universe” which declined by 16.2%. Robeco, the global asset manager, has also found a positive relationship between lower credit risk and sector alignment with SDGs. The RobecoSAM Global SDG Credits strategy outperformed the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Corporate Index by +90 basis points in March of this year. To compound these data points, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment (UN PRI) membership group recommends that all signatories (which represents $86.3 trillion in assets under management) support sustainable companies through the crisis in the interest of public health and long-term economic performance, even if that limits short-term returns. The UN SDGs are not going away The existential threat of COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus other threats of a similar scale, such as climate change and social inequality. The global response to COVID-19 has shown that there is a willingness to embrace long-term changes and drive towards a common goal. This sense of spirit will likely fade as the crisis abates, but it is unlikely to disappear totally. Companies that genuinely embedded purpose before March 2020 are likely to experience favourable trade winds from an upturn due to the opportunity for reflection (and social media opinions) by customers and employees during the lockdown. As societies get over the initial shock of the pandemic and the focus shifts from lockdown to restart, the critical question is how to put the economy and society on a trajectory that lasts. There is a growing consensus in Europe, for example, that the required economic stimulus will have a green hue. In April, the Government of Ireland indicated that it fully supports the EU Green Deal proposed as the central tenet of an economic recovery plan, aligning with 16 other member states. The EU Green Deal provides a roadmap towards a clean, circular economy, restoring biodiversity and cutting pollution. The proposed EU direction of travel is very much aligned with the UN SDGs and this political environment should create an opportunity for businesses that choose to swim with the current. Investors, such as Blackrock, have signalled that regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic, they still expect companies to continue with their ESG (environmental, social and governance) targets. Blackrock has pledged to vote against the directors and boards of companies that fail to meet its expectations to manage environmental risk in 2020 and called for companies to report in line with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) framework. The asset manager expects companies to publicly report how sustainability risks and opportunities are integrated into business strategy. In an Irish context, the UN SDG Index report, released in 2019, shows significant challenges to Ireland meeting several key metrics, including SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 17 (Partnerships). This is due in part to an absence of information, but also reflects our known challenges on climate action. This was a negative result for Ireland, and there will likely be an emphasis from the Government on these three SDGs as part of the recovery package. While we are all preparing for a change in dialogue and a focus on climate action once the new government is formed, SDG 12 (which focuses on responsible consumption and production) presents a similarly large opportunity. In particular, companies that have already implemented a more circular model for resource management and waste streams are benefiting from a first-mover advantage in the circular economy. A business strategy aligned to the SDGs can create value  Given the significant opportunities and risks associated with the UN SDGs, companies that excel at identifying and incorporating these issues into their strategy enjoy a competitive advantage in the marketplace and among institutional investors. It is increasingly clear that sustainability and return on investment are connected. To help boards understand and shape the total impact of a company’s strategy and operations externally – on the environment, the company’s consumers and employees, the communities in which it operates, and other stakeholders – and internally on the company’s performance, I suggest a five-part framework (refer to Table 2). This framework for board oversight recognises that creating long-term value increasingly requires companies to understand the impact of their strategies on key stakeholders – investors, employees, customers, and communities – as well as on the natural resources and supply chains that the company relies on, all of which are fundamental elements of the SDGs. An integrated commercial strategy encourages companies and boards to widen their aperture for a fuller view of sustainability, strategy, and long-term performance. Wherever the company is on the sustainability journey, this framework can help to drive a robust conversation about what sustainability risks and opportunities may impact the company’s key stakeholders, corporate strategy, and long-term performance, and how they will be addressed. Aligning with SDGs will help businesses identify risks and opportunities that may have been omitted from previous analysis and will also provide them with a better understanding of their stakeholders and their relevance to those stakeholders. By communicating their progress towards SDGs, companies can enhance their reputation both internally (with employees) and externally (with the broader public); this transparency contributes to enhanced trust and confidence in the companies’ operations and contribution to society. The improved trust may then result in more robust and sustainable economic, environmental, and social performance. Companies that identify and incorporate these issues into their strategy will stand apart as forward-thinking organisations, future-proofed, well-managed, and able to recover quickest in a post-COVID-19 environment. In conclusion The changes we have experienced in the first months of this year will have a devastating impact on the global economy, but this in no way diminishes the relevance of the UN SDGs despite being conceived in a more stable environment. Businesses that have already aligned their strategies and practices have shown enhanced resilience – sometimes in unexpected ways. In the absence of a crystal ball, it is hard to predict the next six months, let alone the next decade. Still, there are many indicators that the operating environment will be even more favourable to businesses that effectively integrate sustainability into their core business strategy. Organisations that rise to these challenges and show leadership will be rewarded by their stakeholders and gain access to new opportunities. Those that fail to act may put their margins and even their business models at risk.   Caroline Pope is Associate Director at KPMG Sustainable Futures, a cross-functional team of experts who help corporate and public sector clients plan and execute programmes addressing environmental, social and governance topics, decarbonisation, and long-term value creation.

Jun 02, 2020
Careers

Richard Sheath and Susan Stenson share 12 practical tips to help your virtual board meetings operate smoothly in times of crisis. December seems a long time ago.  Back then, as a team of board evaluators,  we set out to imagine how boards would work by 2030. Suddenly the virtual board meetings we perceived as futuristic have arrived, forced on us all by the global COVID-19 pandemic. As boards strive to respond to the many new challenges, board and committee meetings must now work better than ever. And given the unprecedented breadth and difficulty of the issues presented, excellent communication, constructive discussion, and clear-cut decisions are vital. Postponing decisions is not an option, and confusing outcomes will undoubtedly be unhelpful – potentially destructive. Yet these better-than-ever meetings have to be conducted remotely, working with a management team that is likely similarly dispersed. Because we are in contact with many boards that are now meeting virtually, we see what works well and where things go wrong. Based on what we have learnt, here are some practical tips to help your virtual board meetings work well. 1. Get to the point Work even harder with the executive team to ensure that all briefings and presentations are to the point – the point being what the board needs to hear about, now. That means the board and committee chairs going through the possible meeting business and cutting it back to what is essential – whether it is crisis-related or business as usual matters that cannot be postponed. Then, help managers understand that a virtual meeting requires precise points communicated clearly in literally just a few minutes. 2. Set the scene succinctly Ensure that the pre-read papers are clear in terms of what is being asked of the board and that the “overview” page works in the way it should. This overview should include critical background information; a quick reminder of the story so far; the risks; what the board needs to discuss; what is proposed – and all on a couple of pages at most with effective signposting to any essential detail. 3. Draft your agenda from scratch Be extra vigilant in preparing the agenda. Stick to the essential discussion points and ask yourself: can some items be decided by written resolution instead, put in a ‘consent agenda’, or postponed? Start with a clean sheet; do not merely roll-over the usual agenda with some tweaks because that is unlikely to be enough to break the mould. Be clear about the outcomes you need to achieve, and how best to meet them. 4. Prioritise and pace Keep the meeting focused and put what really matters at the top of the agenda. Maintaining concentration for more than a couple of hours is going to be even more difficult than usual, so the essential items need to be addressed first. If there is not enough time, split the meeting into two or three blocks with long-ish breaks in between – long enough to stretch your legs, get some air, and return refreshed. 5. Choose video over audio  Insist on video participation to the greatest extent possible, as it makes a big difference – especially as those on audio-only are often forgotten. That means testing beforehand with each participant, with a co-ordinator (probably from the company secretariat) becoming the expert in how to make your chosen system work. Ask everybody to join a bit early so false starts and broken connections do not sap time and patience once the meeting has officially started. 6. Manage the transitions Sharing documents on-screen can work well on a video call, but the operator needs to know how to do it – and have rehearsed, if possible, knowing what to highlight and where to go. Practise switching between people and a document and back again before the meeting. Switching back is essential – you must get talking heads back on the screen if you want the discussion to flow. 7. Explain the meeting etiquette Establish and communicate the meeting etiquette. That might include the following: mute when not speaking; turn off your video if you need to be interrupted; how to intervene, and the hand signals to do so; how to vote where voting will be required. A chair who typically takes a quick look around the table to assess consensus may need to make this more explicit (for instance, asking everyone to give a thumbs-up). 8. Facilitate input The chair must call on individual directors for their input, rather than leaving them to find their own opportunities to contribute. More frequent stops to take the temperature of the meeting are also needed. 9. Encourage down-time Have comfort breaks at least as often as you would during an in-person meeting. Allow some time during the breaks for chit-chat; social engagement is more important than ever. 10. Stay security conscious Keep an eye on meeting your organisation’s security requirements. Ensure that the Company Secretary monitors who is on the line and remind participants who are not alone in their home offices that they need to use headphones and speak no louder than necessary. In any shared facility, there is a risk that someone may overhear – even through a wall. Screens must be shielded too. This may seem obvious, but we do see and hear things going wrong, resulting in embarrassment at best or a severe breach at worst. 11. Meet your legal obligations Check the legal formalities for your meeting (quorum and location requirements, for example). Take a roll-call at the beginning and if you are tight on numbers, keep an eagle eye on the quorum in case somebody falls off the call. 12. Gather feedback Set aside five to ten minutes at the end of the meeting to ask people how the meeting went and to gather ideas for future virtual board meetings. Alternatively, you can use a short questionnaire if time is short. A checklist for virtual board meetings Here is a list to help you consider the elements of a productive virtual meeting. Be extra vigilant when preparing the agenda and pre-read material Stick to the essential discussions and focus the agenda. Eliminate long verbal presentations. Make sure the pre-read papers are clear on what is being asked of the board. Check the legal formalities for your meeting (quorum requirements, location, etc.)   Check the technical logistics Include a video link and encourage all participants to be in ‘video on’ mode. Ask all participants to join five to ten minutes before the start of the meeting. Test the document sharing facility, if needed.   Set the ground rules Instruct participants to wear headphones and prepare their meeting environment (lighting, camera angle, wi-fi connection, security/confidentiality, etc.) Instruct participants to use mute, turn off video if leaving the room, and take calls elsewhere. Take a roll-call and ensure that everyone knows who is present and who has joined. Secure the meeting – check all joiners and flag confidentiality continually. Set out the rules on how to intervene. Define the use of the chat function or oral questions to facilitate questioning. Work out a mechanism for voting and indicating agreement or dissent.   For the chair Call on individual directors more for their inputs. Stop periodically to take the temperature of the meeting. Include comfort breaks and encourage participants to interact socially during this time. Encourage participants to be respectful, present, and engaged if bad behaviour becomes apparent. Check with participants after the meeting to gauge their experience. Richard Sheath is a Director at Independent Audit Limited, the board evaluators. Susan Stenson is a Director at Independent Audit Limited, the board evaluators.

Jun 02, 2020
Personal Impact

John Kennedy explains why knowing too much can harm your practice, and where you should apply your focus instead. When I ask Chartered Accountants to make a list of the problems that hold them back from getting new clients, I am sometimes surprised at the issues they include. One point never makes the list, yet it is often a challenge – they just know too much. How can that be a problem? Surely every client wants a highly knowledgeable accountant, someone who is on top of all of the details and knows all of the angles?This is partly true, but it hides how you can inadvertently damage your practice. Unless you take time to step back, think clearly from the perspective of the client and shape your words to meet their needs, you can quickly lose their attention. This problem is compounded by the assumption that your clients pay you for your knowledge of accountancy, but that is not why clients pay you. Why do clients pay you? This is a deceptively simple question. Is it because of the things you know or because of the things you do for them? Or is it because your qualifications mean you are empowered to authorise documents? Each answer constitutes some part of the reason, but each also obscures a vitally important point. There are two crucial distinctions. First, clients do not pay you for the things you do; they pay you for the value you deliver. Second, the value you provide is only partially expressed in monetary terms. The fundamental truth is that, in many cases, clients most value the way you make them feel. Where your real value lies When you were studying as an undergraduate, the emphasis was on increasing your knowledge. You bought textbooks, you attended lectures, you completed assignments and the focus was always on what you knew – more facts, more information, more knowledge. Your exams tested and confirmed your knowledge; the more you could prove all you knew, the higher the grades. And the more you knew, the better you felt and the better you were regarded by the training firms for whom you hoped to work. With this relentless emphasis on knowing more and more, it is unsurprising that you came to assume that knowledge was where your value as an accountant lay. Then you became a trainee Chartered Accountant in a firm. In your application, your interview and all of the tasks you were given, it was assumed that you had the knowledge required. At this point, the emphasis began to shift to the things you did. You were given specific tasks; what you did and the time it took was captured in timesheets. The emphasis of virtually every aspect of your work, your day and your value revolved around recording your activity in your timesheets. And then you set up your own practice. By now, the emphasis had become so engrained – entrenched even – that you assumed that the key to building a successful practice revolved around turning what you knew into what you do, and recording that in timesheets to bill your client. This focus transferred to your client, but the truth is that this is not where your greatest value – nor your greatest opportunity – lies. Your client wants your value, not your time To build a successful practice, you need to move your thinking – and the focus for your client – beyond what you do and towards the value you provide. This involves two steps. The first step is to consciously move the emphasis from the things you do to the value you deliver. This first step is widely accepted but poorly implemented in practice. The second step is perhaps even more critical if much less understood. To build a practice with strong bonds with long-term clients, you need to move the emphasis from facts to feelings. Human beings like to believe that our species is more rational than it really is. We believe that we see or hear something, we analyse it rationally, and we decide. But do you suppress your feelings at work and give dispassionate advice? Are you always logical and provide clients with clearly thought-out analysis? This is what we like to believe, but it is often untrue. The reality looks much more like this: we see or hear something; we filter it through our emotions; we interpret it and tell ourselves a story; and on that basis, we decide if it is right or wrong. This filtering process happens all the time and while every client wants the facts dealt with, they assume that this is the minimum level of service they will receive from their accountant. The bonds that make clients work with you and generate referrals are forged beneath the level of conscious thoughts. Even in business, the way we feel is of enormous importance so you can create a genuine edge by understanding and applying this. The positive feelings generated by your work include peace of mind, increased confidence in decision-making, or the anticipation of a comfortable retirement. These are important sources of value, yet few realise just how vital these submerged feelings are – even in the most dispassionate business transaction. Every interaction has a submerged, and usually unstated, emotional aspect. As a practice owner, you must understand this and use it to your advantage. When making the shift in focus from the things you do to the value you deliver, you must take account of the genuine feelings at play. Value is about more than money Feelings are always there and are an important part of the value provided by a Chartered Accountant – no matter how much we try to convince ourselves that it is “just business”. Everyone has clients they like and clients they do not like; phone calls they look forward to making and phone calls they hate making; tasks they like doing and tasks they hate. We are very skilled at telling ourselves stories that turn these feelings into apparently rational explanations supported by facts to support our conclusions – but there is no avoiding the reality that feelings are very powerful, and this is the same for your client. Let us take an example that shows just how powerful this concept is. Complete this sentence: “More than anything, I want my children to be…” I have used this example for decades and the answer is almost always “happy”. Occasionally, the respondent will say “content” or “fulfilled”, but in each case the answer is an emotion. It is never a financial or factual answer. This is a simple example of just how important feelings are. How to gain an advantage Gaining a client does not begin and end with you making clear all of the things you will do for them. For an individual to act, they must first feel confident that you understand what they want. And more importantly, they must also be convinced and motivated to the point that they are committed to working with you. Being convinced and motivated depends on your ability to address the feelings that so often remain submerged, unexamined, and unaddressed. I have heard about all the effort accountants put into planning and preparing for meetings with potential clients, often spending hours crafting a well-designed and high-quality document and accompanying presentation. But they then go on to tell me that, even as they are discussing the document or giving the presentation, they know it is just not working. Almost everyone has experienced this in some way, but many simply continue as if the submerged feelings are not there or are insignificant. The habitual pattern is to press on with more information, more facts, more details. The result is that you completely overlook the reality that the submerged feelings are the decisive factor in the ultimate success of any relationship. It is much more useful to bring these feelings to the surface. You do this by using questions to draw out how the work you are discussing with your client will make them feel. The truth is that few clients care about exemplary management accounts or pristine submissions. Some do want to use their cash more effectively or to have a clear tax plan in place, but everyone wants to feel the peace of mind or sense of security that these actions bring. Yet, many accountants spend too much time talking about the surface facts, the facts that – even when they are dealt with well – are, at best, efficient and uninspiring. The often-unacknowledged truth is that the feelings you create in your clients are just as valuable in building long-term relationships as the work you do. When you deal with the surface facts well, but the submerged feelings are left unattended, there is the illusion of progress, but the relationship is merely routine with little enthusiasm. New clients in particular will sometimes engage you as part of their initial wave of enthusiasm, irrespective of the work you have done, but that will undoubtedly be a passing phase. The worst-case scenario is where the factual, practical aspects of the relationship are not adequately clarified and addressed, and the submerged feelings are also poorly dealt with. If this is the case, the client may accept you as a necessary evil, and you both bump along for a short time until your client moves to another practice. Even if they stay, these are the clients that are difficult to deal with, slow to pay, and frustrating to have. Only when you take control of, and actively deal with, both the surface level factual tasks and the submerged feelings do relationships take off. When this happens, it is of real value to both you and your client. These are the client relationships you want – you are both in step, you both work well together, and you both feel positive about the work. Too often, however, this kind of relationship is left to chance because the influential role of submerged feelings is seldom acknowledged, discussed, and actively addressed. But you can make these positive and rewarding client relationships a matter of choice. Just get into the habit of raising your clients’ understanding of the importance of the positive feelings generated by working constructively with you as their accountant. Ask about the areas they want to be confident in; probe how putting their affairs in order will reduce stress; and test and draw out the peace of mind they will get. As you become skilled at eliciting and addressing these submerged feelings, you will set yourself apart from your competitors. Move your emphasis from what you do to the value it brings, and then take the critical step of drawing out and addressing the submerged feelings that are most important to your client.   John Kennedy is a strategic advisor. He has worked with leaders and senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.

Jun 02, 2020