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Business management

Business lessons for the new now

Successful entrepreneurs and NatWest experts met online recently to debate the consequences of the pandemic and how businesses can evolve to thrive in a changed world.

The future has arrived early

Why the need to pivot? Because, as Stephen Blackman, group principal economist at NatWest, explained, the pandemic has massively accelerated existing trends, both in business and society. Blackman’s analysis focuses on five “pillars” where we will see these changes:

  1. Nation & Society, implying a larger role for government and private-public cooperation.
  2. Work & Play, a reimagining of how we earn and spend money.
  3. Place & Community, a new focus on where we live.
  4. Economy & Finance, with questions about the meaning of growth and prosperity.
  5. Health & Meaning, which foresees a re-evaluation of our priorities.

Blackman said the pandemic has put pressure on existing business models because of “the shift to online spending, the use of digital technology, the shift towards values-based consumption, [and] a shift towards a more relational aspect between business and customers and society, rather than purely transactional”.

The effects of the pandemic have given “a new shape to the world”, Blackman believes, and will alter the preferences of all of us, whether as citizens, consumers or employees.

Blackman also talked through a few of the big themes that businesses should acknowledge as they move forward:

  • The re-establishment of mutual trust between business, government and people. “[We] need business to play a role in the recovery – and by recovery I mean both the economic and the social recovery, building back better,” said Blackman.
  • The central role people will play in the recovery. This will be “in terms of the innovation, the use of technology, but also the resilience of people, the protection of people… making sure people can learn, making sure people can develop”.
  • Recognition that work and play will become less transactional. A focus on “what values drive us in our consumption… changes from digitisation, what we want from businesses, more value-based interactions”.
  • An understanding that resilience is defined by more than financial resilience. “It is about the use of the skills in our fullest sense, our skills as people, our skills in our innovation and creative capabilities,” said Blackman.

Facing the future

So how can we meet this challenge? A mix of successful entrepreneurs – all of whom were candid about the challenges that coronavirus had presented – explained how business leaders could pivot to deal with them.

Dr Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of Babylon, an AI and digital health company, emphasised that the rapid adoption of technology can help all of us rethink stale ideas and habits. Babylon applications, for example, make it possible to have an appointment with a doctor remotely. But this is not just a healthcare opportunity, he stressed. “It is just one example of many industries that had figured out technology, but force of habit made us not implement it. This interruption has made us rethink and reshape things that we could do differently. I welcome that.”

Tamara Lohan, founder and CEO of Mr & Mrs Smith, the boutique hotel booking website, emphasised how the pandemic had focused her organisation on providing customer service that recognised the emotional value of special experiences, and the idea that the relationship between her platform, travellers and hotels, is more than transactional. “These are trips that are really meaningful – they’re honeymoons, they’re birthday celebrations,” she said. That has meant providing innovative ways to give credit for cancelled trips, for example.

This more-than-just-business attitude has extended to her partners, too, Lohan explained, because the partners are the hotels whose efforts make those experiences special. Supporting them in any way possible during the pandemic was an investment for the future, she said.

Natalie Campbell, CEO of Belu Water, a social enterprise, recalled questioning her purpose as a leader from the very start of the pandemic. “It was to become the chief hope officer, to become the chief purpose officer, to become the chief momentum officer and also to really think about creating a new culture on day one… Instead of thinking about a one-year strategy or a 10-year strategy, we are trying to think about our purpose and bring it centrally back into our business, to fly the flag for the way businesses should operate within society.”

If you have a strong brand, the support of your team and family, and you operate with integrity, you can get through any crisis

Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea
President of CBI and founder at Cobra Beer

Renée Elliott founded Planet Organic 25 years ago. Today, she is co-founder of Beluga Bean, which works with teams to improve their well-being at work. She agreed with Blackman that many businesses will need to develop a deeper understanding of what “resilience” means for the teams that work for them. “It’s not just financial; it’s your ‘bouncebackability’, it’s your ability to adapt and thrive in any situation, along with well-being,” she added.

A new type of leader

The “time machine”, as Blackman referred to the pandemic’s effect, has also fast-forwarded us to a moment where many leaders may need to pivot the way they manage their organisations.

Paul Thwaite, chief executive officer of commercial banking at NatWest, explained that the bank has defined a larger sense of purpose for its business that helps its customers, communities and individuals thrive. He summed up the challenge for the bank and the wider business world. “We have to prepare ourselves for a more digitised and more climate-orientated future,” he said. “This means we also need to redefine the role businesses play in society, and what it means to be resilient.”

To achieve this goal, businesses will need to have a deeper engagement with the welfare of their staff, who might feel anxious and uncertain about their futures in the new now, and create the environment that “allows employees to cope with the circumstances that are being thrown at them, both from a physical and a mental perspective”.

Lord Bilimoria stressed three key factors that will help anyone stand up to whatever comes their way. “If you have a strong brand, the support of your team and family, and you operate with integrity, you can get through any crisis,” he said.

He also emphasised that we may not be able to predict these crises – “They always come out of nowhere,” he said – but we can learn from them. He recalled a lesson from his career, which involved almost losing his business more than once.

“It is better to fail doing the right thing than to succeed doing the wrong thing. Always practise integrity. Have you as companies looked after your employees? Have you cared for them? Because they will remember that – and if it is the other way around, they will remember that as well.

This crisis, more than any, it’s about putting people first

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