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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
Personal Impact

Dr Annette Clancy explains why employees’ mental health should be the organising principle for businesses in the 21st century. 20-30% of us will experience mental health issues during our lifetime. Could the quantity and quality of work have something to do with this?  A recent study conducted in the UK shows that one-third of us are not happy about the amount of time we spend at work. More than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems. As a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness, worry and anxiety. Employees’ mental health is affected by their roles. For example, we might expect to see mental health issues in workers who deal with trauma and violence every day, but studies also show that workplace culture, bullying, disciplinary processes, and toxic workplace relationships all contribute to deteriorating mental health. Many businesses have policies for mental health and workplace wellness, but for those who are trying to cope with challenging workloads and suffering at the same time, policies may not be enough. Very often, people hide what they are feeling for fear they will be stigmatised or punished. Policies need to be backed up with empathetic intervention by managers who have the right combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. Yet, managers are rarely trained to either recognise or manage conversations with team members who may be experiencing mental health difficulties. So, what can managers do to de-stigmatise mental health issues? 1. Create an organisational culture where there is respect for people. This sounds simple, but in practice, it rarely is. Most mental health issues arise from toxic relationships, bullying, harassment or power dynamics. Changing the culture around this would go a long way in helping to eliminate some mental health issues. 2. Train all managers and team leaders in ‘soft’ skills. Help people develop the ability to listen to what is not being said and read body language so that they can pay attention to those they manage. Stress and anxiety are felt, not spoken, so managers must be attuned to how it is expressed. 3. Encourage a culture of openness about time constraints and workload. Employees must feel able to speak up if the demands placed on them are too high. Also, ensure that employees’ jobs are manageable within the time for which they are contracted. Expanding job creep is one starting place for stress in organisations. Monitoring this aspect of an organisation’s behaviour alone could impact significantly on mental health. 4. Allow staff to attend counselling and support services during working hours, as they would for other medical appointments. This proactive initiative sends an important signal that mental health is a priority in your organisation. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines mental health as “the state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community”. The WHO definition provides a policy template for organisations wishing to create a culture in which the mental health of all workers is prioritised, not only those with mental health issues. It offers an interesting insight into how an organisation might be structured if mental wellbeing was the organising principle. As mental health issues continue to increase both within and beyond the workplace, perhaps the WHO definition isn’t so far-fetched. Putting people at the centre of organisations used to be the way we did things; putting the mental health of employees at the centre of organisations may be the way we need to do things in the 21st century. Dr Annette Clancy is Assistant Professor of Management at UCD School of Art, History and Cultural Policy.

Jun 02, 2020
Comment

Far from being ‘nice to haves’, diversity and inclusion remain vital during the COVID-19 crisis and could be even more important in its aftermath, writes Rachel Hussey. Our collective experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a considerable amount of discussion and analysis about how this experience will ultimately change the way we live – or want to live – when the crisis subsides. The pandemic, and our response to it, has called into question many aspects of life we took for granted. The world of work has been turned on its head. The most obvious and immediate impact is that most of us are working from home (or, more accurately, at home during a crisis trying to work). The pandemic has caused us to examine the essence of the ‘workplace’ and we are trying to imagine how the future of work during, and after, COVID-19 might look. As the pandemic begins to ease and we begin to return to our former workplaces for at least some of the time, flexibility will be more important than ever. Parents will have to manage childcare and work, possibly in the absence of schools and crèches. Traditional work practices may no longer be possible. We will need to have flexibility around work organisation, meeting times and general time planning, and allow people to control how they plan their day. This will mean not only continuing with a significant element of working from home, but also introducing genuinely agile working practices in the future. The former world of work is probably changed forever, and we cannot – and should not – seek simply to recreate it. Now we have reached the end of the beginning, the focus on diversity and inclusion has begun to re-emerge with some interesting new perspectives. Many organisations are looking at cost-cutting measures and there is a risk that diversity initiatives might be regarded as non-essential. I believe that inclusion and diversity are as – if not more – important during this crisis as they were before and will continue to be as we emerge from the current crisis. Organisations that had a strong focus on inclusion and diversity before the crisis were better equipped to deal with it when it happened. The starkest example of this is that organisations and firms that had agile working policies and practices in place, which mostly resulted from strategies around inclusion and diversity, were best placed to make the transition to working from home. Firms that resisted flexible working took longer to get set-up remotely and back to business. The last couple of months have demonstrated beyond doubt that it is possible to run a professional services firm in a dispersed way. Some partners and other leaders who may never have worked from home are now forced to do so and realise that people can be as (or even more) productive working remotely. The COVID-19 crisis has busted the myth that agile working does not work. Of interest too are the leadership traits that have been important in this crisis. They include compassion, empathy, humility, and putting other people ahead of yourself. These traits tend to be associated with women, though they are of course found in many men too, and they are becoming more highly valued at this time. Inclusive leadership is particularly essential. Managing teams remotely involves being alive to team dynamics and being mindful of people on teams who might be isolated or feel excluded. Even on video conferencing calls, inclusive leaders will try to include each team member in the discussion. Making people feel included will help maintain productivity and motivation. It has been established beyond doubt that one of the clear business benefits of diverse teams is increased innovation. Now more than ever, companies and firms need to innovate to respond to this crisis. It is, therefore, critical to focus on team composition to ensure that they have the right balance of experience, perspective, and cognitive diversity to nurture innovation and generate the best business results possible. Specific organisations recently reiterated their commitment to diversity and inclusion publicly. At some stage, and let us hope that it will be sooner rather than later, we will emerge from this crisis and companies and firms will again be competing for the top performers. Companies and firms that stay the course and keep a sharp focus on diversity and inclusion during this crisis will be best placed to attract that talent. Once the crisis is over, companies and firms that do not stay the course will have some serious catching up to do. Rachel Hussey is Chair of 30% Club Ireland and a Partner at Arthur Cox.

Jun 02, 2020
Feature Interview

As the saying goes, rough seas make great sailors and the new President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, Paul Henry, has abundant experience of leading in times of crisis. Perhaps in a sign of the times, Paul Henry sat down at his desk at home in Belfast to conduct this interview. With the lockdown in full effect, he was working from home as he sought to run his commercial property business and prepare for the year ahead as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland. And it will be a busy year indeed. In July, Paul will also become Chair of CCAB – a forum of five professional accountancy bodies that collaborate on matters affecting the profession and the broader economy. There will undoubtedly be much to discuss. From recovery to regulation, Paul will lead the charge for both Chartered Accountants Ireland and CCAB at a turbulent and fragile time in the island’s history. The global COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an economic malaise that may well be compounded by the effects of Brexit but leading through such crises was far from his mind when he decided to become a Chartered Accountant in the 1980s. The path to industry From an early age, Paul was determined to become both a Chartered Accountant and businessman – influenced in part by the apparent success of his friends’ parents. Upon leaving his science-focused secondary school in North Belfast, Paul attended Queen’s University Belfast where he studied accounting at undergraduate level before completing what was then known as the Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting. He readily admits that his first year studying accounting was “a wee bit of a mystery” but with some perseverance, both the art and the science of the subject began to make sense. Paul went on to qualify as a Chartered Accountant with PwC Northern Ireland in 1989, where he met his wife, Siân. He subsequently held positions with the Industrial Development Board, Enterprise Equity, PwC (for a second spell), and ASM Chartered Accountants before joining his current firm, Osborne King, where he is now a Director and equity partner. The move from practice to real estate advisory came about when Paul was working with ASM Chartered Accountants, primarily on corporate finance projects. “I had been speaking with the team at Osborne King about developing the business and the commercial skills they would need to do that, so I helped to shape a role and job specification for them,” he said. “They went to market with the role and close to the closing date for applications, one of the team said: ‘We’ve received some good applications, but we didn’t receive one from you’. For me, that was the light bulb moment because it was precisely the career I wanted. So, I went through the application process and thankfully landed the job.” Becoming a businessman Paul’s evolution did not end there, however. Having joined Osborne King in 2000, he led transactions involving sophisticated financial structures including private finance initiative and public/private partnership deals. Business was booming but unbeknownst to most, the financial crash of 2008/09 was not far away. The global downturn that followed decimated many sectors and industries – not least commercial property. Osborne King, like many others, felt the pinch but out of crisis comes opportunity and Paul went on to achieve his second childhood dream: becoming a fully-fledged businessman. “Through a series of developments and the downturn in particular, I ended up completing a management buyout of Osborne King with one other colleague. We restructured the business and the shareholders haven’t looked back since,” he said. With the benefit of hindsight, Paul can identify several lessons that are pertinent today as employers attempt to stay solvent and keep their businesses afloat. “The critical thing is to be open and honest with your people. In a downturn such as this, businesses must reduce their cost base and conserve cash, and that means having difficult conversations – particularly with staff and suppliers,” he said. “But if you communicate clearly and often, people will trust you and that is a precious asset to have. So be straight with them about the challenges facing your business, but don’t forget to repay that trust when the business landscape improves.” Indeed, one of Paul’s proudest achievements is keeping the full Osborne King team intact throughout the 2008/09 crisis and its aftermath. “We were probably the only commercial real estate firm that didn’t make any redundancies during the last recession,” he added. “We did that because, in my mind, we have great people and it is our people that will help us thrive once the economy recovers.” The current crisis Nobody expected to be in an even worse economic predicament just 12 years later, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to plunging world economic growth. Businesses are operating in a near-absolute environment of uncertainty as governments scramble to provide the necessary lifelines for corporations, entrepreneurs, and their staff. In that context, Paul has been impressed by the agility and ingenuity of the governments in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in responding to the needs of both businesses and citizens. “People are often very critical of the public service but in recent months, we have seen its very best elements – not least in the health sector and emergency services. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe,” he said. Paul is also keen to highlight the vital role of the Institute in helping its members through the pandemic. “In times of adversity, we become incredibly creative and innovative and the Institute has responded very well to offer members even more services – whether it’s the COVID-19 Hub on the website or our regular webinars on soft skills or the Wage Subsidy Scheme,” he added. “Since March 2020, the level of member engagement with the Institute has increased significantly so we can see clearly that our Digital First programme is the right strategy. If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we have been forced to accelerate many of the innovative member services initiatives that were already on our agenda for 2020 and beyond.” All of this, he said, complements the traditional role of the Institute as a source of support for its 28,500 members. “CA Support is there to support all members and students in times of difficulty or crisis, and the service has seen an increase in activity in recent months,” Paul said. “Whether you have lost your job, are struggling to cope with uncertainty, or feeling lonely, all members and students can turn to their member organisation for support and guidance, and that is something that makes me immensely proud.” The role of the Chartered Accountant In addition to helping each other, Chartered Accountants will also be relied upon to help steer businesses through the pandemic and towards a sustainable future in what remains a very uncertain economic and regulatory landscape. Paul is hopeful that the global economy will recover relatively quickly, but there remains much to be done even if the economic signals begin to improve. “As we work through the fallout of the pandemic, businesses will need to be aware of the ‘wall of creditors’ waiting for them on the other side of the crisis,” he said. “Although survival is the name of the game at the moment, rent, commercial rates, and other obligations will need to be settled at some stage and Chartered Accountants – both in business and as advisors to business – will need to turn their focus to that issue.” All the while, Brexit rumbles on in the background and although it has the potential to compound the economic woes bestowed on the island of Ireland, Paul points to the profession’s pragmatism as its most valuable asset in navigating the added uncertainty. “The Institute has made clear that it would be preferable if Brexit did not happen, or if it did, that it happened in a planned and managed way with ample time for businesses to acclimatise to the new reality. But Chartered Accountants will play the hand they are dealt and work to understand what role they must play in making Brexit work without judgement,” he said. The President’s priorities Paul takes the helm at Chartered Accountants Ireland at a distinctly turbulent time but as the saying goes, rough seas make great sailors and Paul’s experience – both in industry and practice – gives him a rounded view of the needs of the membership during times of crisis in particular. In the year ahead, the Institute will launch a new four-year strategy that will hopefully outlive both COVID-19 and Brexit and despite the uncertainties, Paul’s focus will remain very much on people, talent, and potential. “When I joined Enterprise Equity, my chief executive said ‘Paul, it’s going to cost me £1 million to train you’. I was thrilled because I thought I was going to be educated in the best universities in the world, but he really meant that I would make many costly mistakes along the way,” Paul said. “In business, you are often backing the jockey and not the horse. It is the people, team and leaders that will get you around the course and win the race, and this focus on people will be a core element of my Presidency in the year ahead.” Paul will also focus on other strategic imperatives during his tenure: building on the recent evolution of the education syllabus, supporting the Institute’s Digital First initiative, and adapting to the ‘new normal’ for students, members and staff – whatever that ‘new normal’ might be. “My key priorities will revolve around member experience. It is vital that we engage with members, both at home and overseas, and become increasingly relevant to members in all sectors,” he said. “Building engagement with our members will be central to that sense of relevance. And as someone who wasn’t engaged with the Institute for many years, I can say with conviction that once members engage with Chartered Accountants Ireland and come to understand the breadth of services and support available to members and students alike, they will be amazed.” Conclusion Paul’s presidency will be a presidency like no other. Travel will be restricted in the short-term, a global recession is looming, and the world of professional services work has undergone a dramatic upheaval. But Paul remains optimistic for the future. “Through our education system, we are equipping the next generation of Chartered Accountants with the skills and expertise necessary to lead businesses into the future and support economic recovery and growth,” he said. “Meanwhile, our members continue to be relied upon as the people who connect the dots, bring people together and make individual elements more effective and valuable by creating and leading great teams. For me, the future is all about empathy, people, and teams – and if we get that right, we can and will recover.”

Jun 02, 2020