Time for some honest conversations

Written by Ann Francke OBE Tuesday 25 August 2020
In a wide-ranging interview, the DG of the British Chambers of Commerce Adam Marshall assesses the government’s response to the Covid-19 crisis and the specific ways that business must now change
Ann Francke OBE, CMI's CEO

My guest for CMI’s Better Managers Briefing on 21 August was Dr Adam Marshall, CMI Companion and director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC). Adam shared views on how government, business and individual leaders have responded to the Covid-19 crisis thus far, and how this needs to evolve as we build back better.

Government's Response: A Tale of Two Halves

The government’s response has fallen into two segments, Adam believes. In the immediate aftermath of the crisis in April, May and June, the emergency measures “hit the mark. The furlough scheme clearly supported a huge number of jobs” and helped the country avoid mass redundancies. He praises the CBILS (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loans) and the BBLS (Bounce Back Loan Scheme). “After some initial teething problems, both have had an effect, and “we've had over £50bn lent out to businesses who were facing very significant cash flow difficulties at the height of the crisis.” Support offered to local authorities also helped. Yes, there were a few gaps, such as help for those who run limited companies and are paid in dividends, but Adam believes that, to begin with, the government responded well.

He’s less positive about the response across June, July and August: “We've had conflicting information and unclear guidance from government, on everything from travel quarantines through to how to get back to work… and whether public transport and schools and the various other important things would reopen.” The net impact? We haven't had the level of confidence needed to get the economy back to full steam.

Evolve and Tailor Future Support: What’s Our Narrative?

The next few months are crucial, says Adam, especially the October to March period. He’d like to see support evolve, with big cuts to National Insurance Contributions introduced as the furlough scheme unwinds. Financial support for local lockdowns and hardest-hit sectors will be vital, as well as improved testing and tracing. “My colleagues in Leicester and Aberdeen over the past few weeks have really been through the perfect storm. Their companies were just getting restarted. They’ve been locked back down fully – and there’s no additional support on offer.”

Despite the massive debt levels accruing – more than £2trn to date – Adam is clear that the government must continue to offer support for business. “Our argument is, and will remain, that the consequences of inaction will be worse than the consequences of dealing with that additional financial burden.”

On top of this, there's Brexit – and Britain's new place in the world. “We do need to start building our narrative as to who we are and what sort of economy we are going to have in future. What are our positives? We’ve got a flexible can-do innovative workforce and business culture,” says Adam, noting that you can start a business in the UK “with a few clicks of your mouse.” What we need to do now is to cultivate our infrastructure, tax policy and skills to make sure they can grow.

Hats Off to Business Heroes

Adam is full of praise for how businesses have coped in the crisis. “We’ve seen an amazing response.” He and the BCC plan to celebrate the many ‘Business Heroes’ who have “stepped up at the height of the crisis and said, ‘we’re going to set some of our immediate P&L considerations and do what’s right in our communities.” Examples of such action include companies that have produced and distributed PPE; created a volunteer workforce for the vulnerable; and others that have quickly adapted to provide the products and services needed for their business and others to cope.

“Five or ten years of technological change happened in five or ten weeks,” he notes, adding that many organisations’ systems, people and productivity held up despite the huge challenges they faced. New ways of working helped families deal with the uncertainties in their lives, such as caring for children and the elderly. He hopes much of this positive effect will carry forward ‘“rather than just snap back to exactly how we did things before.”

Learning to Thrive in Continuous Uncertainty: Honest Conversations and Resilience
As for the future, “every good business is one that will be able to thrive in conditions of uncertainty,” Adam notes. Even if businesses don’t like it, uncertainty is here to stay. Agility and flexibility are now key, as is being able to adapt to different scenarios rapidly. It is important for leaders to communicate this changed reality: “That is a conversation that is best had with employees at every level in the organisation.” Many of these conversations have been “really mature and positive,” he says, and this in turn has built employees’ trust levels in their employers. “Open and honest conversation is a big and a positive change that should continue.”

Adam also believes that “investing in the transferable skills that individuals can bring to bear for the good of the business is going to be really important going forward.” He’d like to see incentives for businesses to spend their cash doing just that.

Empathy and Compassion: Lasting Leadership Behaviours in a Flexible Future
Which qualities will leaders need to show in future? “Compassion and empathy with your people is the best trait that any leader or manager can display… People have realised that they can do things very differently, trust their people differently, develop those relationships differently. And I think that will be for the good.” Personally, he’s been candid with his team about when it’s his turn to do the school run.

Working patterns will change in the future, although it’s still early to say how exactly this will pan out. “One thing we can say for sure is that there will be more flexibility and there will be more open and easy conversations between employers and employees about the best work pattern to get the job done.”

You can watch our conversation in full here. Why not go back and watch a few of our previous episodes in the series, including my conversation with Sam Allen and Rosalind Penny who both work for the NHS?

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