Non-execs provide an invaluable source of advice, cross-sector input and experience to executive boards. The role of a NED is to provide independent oversight and constructive challenge to the Executive Directors of a business; they are an important part of business direction and success and, therefore, important to the success of the economy as a whole.
With many NEDs sitting on multiple boards spanning varying sectors, their input can often prove invaluable, bringing different approaches to problems at hand.
It’s little surprise, therefore, that the non-exec role found itself playing an incredibly important part as businesses sought to navigate the immediate challenges around the Covid-19 pandemic — and as they continue to plan for recovery.
We caught up with Feilim Mackle, who sits as a non-exec for The Ardonagh Group and Utmost Life and Pensions, as well as serving as a member of the board of trustees for Macmillan Cancer Support, and Executive Chairman of Amigo Technology. Here, Feilim shares his observations on what helped the businesses he works with handle the coronavirus pandemic effectively and offers advice for business leaders facing crisis.
Tell us how the pandemic impacted the businesses you work with and, as a non-exec, how you helped them
The great thing about being a non-exec is that I have the privilege to work with excellent businesses across many varying sectors. That gives a broader insight into the world at large, which can sometimes be forgotten — particularly when a business is under stress.
There are lots of words I’d use to describe the last 12 months: uncertain; unimaginable; challenging; relentless. But it’s also been incredibly rewarding. Something about the year showed the core resilience of both businesses and human beings when they’re up against it, and that’s really quite something to behold.
It’s been a very unusual leadership environment as the only thing that has been certain is that everything is uncertain! Long-term planning was off the table and the focus was on survival and then re-emerging stronger and ready to thrive again.
Looking specifically at Macmillan Cancer Support, the pandemic had a really material impact. Thousands of people did not go to their GPs to allow their cancer referrals to take place, charitable income fell significantly and our NHS partners were on their knees fighting the reality of Covid, every day. Unprecedented.
Our close partnership with the NHS however set Macmillan in a strong stead in terms of our long term planning. We knew that attentions would be diverted to coronavirus for a long time.
From April 2020 onwards, we planned for sustained uncertainty and no return to normality before summer 2021. That made an enormous difference to our business planning. Lots of businesses I witnessed assumed it would only be three months, then five, then nine… that stop-start business planning can be incredibly destructive. By planning for no recovery for a sustained period, Macmillan was able to work to a more realistic forecast and also focus on the things that mattered most meanwhile
What does excellent leadership look like during prolonged uncertainty?
The key things that are common across all the boards I sit on are all to do with great leadership:
- – Stay calm. At times, it was a bit like a war zone — unpredictable, with an invisible enemy and completely new to all of us. Staying calm was the only way to carry on (to paraphrase the slogan!)
- – Focus on what’s constant, rather than what’s different
- – Obsess about your people and obsess about your customers. Make sure you are being the best employer and the best provider you can be
- – Manage cash effectively
- – Focus on really excellent short-term planning.
In business it really matters to understand what people are going through, at every level. Without that you end up not being able to lead. One of the risks of remote working is that you lose that personal touch. Its a very lonely period for many people and not having that punctuation mark between the end of your working day and your home life is awful.
Focusing on being there for your customers and giving them choices on how they deal with you is also really important. I work with a lot of PE, financial services and so on. We had customers who are essential workers and we had to keep our essential services running to allow the essential services of the country running — car insurance for example. Focusing on the customer helps you navigate through dark times.
I also think that internal engagement has made a big difference in the last year. The best examples of excellence I saw last year were from business who materially increased their engagement with employees.
I’m also a big advocate for support for wellbeing and mental health. The pandemic has shone a light on a number of things — our social divide, exposing already-weak industries such as the retail high street, and mental health and wellbeing. I hope one of the lasting positives from the pandemic is that it will be treated even more seriously in a workplace setting.
What about the future of work?
I’m a great believer that many things eventually return to the previous norm. After a volcanic eruption, the fields are burnt. But over time the flowers, the birds, the bees return. Life returns. And so it will be with the office. Some people simply want to be back in the office, for whatever reason. The pressure from people wanting to return will increase over time but businesses will need to offer the flexibility and capability to allow people to work remotely.
The office is so much more than a place to do work. It’s a place for social intercourse. Video just isn’t good enough for collaboration or for building deep relationships. The concept of everything being remote forever is nonsense, in my opinion.
The dearth of learning is immense. What are we learning now? We’re learning that some people are better at video than others. But we’re missing observational learning, immersive learning, learning what not to do. The loss is wider than simply the practical difficulties of working from home. There’s economic, psychological, learning and growing losses. We’ve lost some opportunities to grow as individuals. and there’s a huge social loss because of that. A return to work is needed to redress the balance.
What’s going on outside of the pandemic?
Globalisation, on a mammoth scale. There are a small handful of companies that pretty much command the entire world market, and that’s quite a scary thing. With size like that comes power, and there is no such thing as global legislation to keep these businesses in check. Something will happen, like the data breaches that have already occurred, to trigger a change, but until then we should all be aware of the immense size of the Amazons, Facebooks and Apples of this world.
The scale and pace of growth in China is mind boggling. That will have consequences, good and bad. China is recovering well from the pandemic; it bought a lot of assets this year. China is recovering very quickly compared to many other countries and, with so many businesses reliant on China for manufacturing, don’t expect the Chinese influence to slow any time soon.
When you look at the biggest markets, not countries or companies, the global life and health market is still the largest, followed by pensions, oil and gas, real estate and cars. They’ve all been affected in different ways, but they continue to hold huge amounts of influence.
What would your lessons for the leaders of tomorrow be?
Build a legacy that you’re proud of in every role you have. Aim that the business, its people, customers and shareholders are all better for you having been in that role.
If you’re a new leader, search constantly for growth, both personal and in business. Searching for growth in the broadest sense of the world is so important for developing your leadership skills.
Finally, be authentic, be yourself, be human. That’s what great leadership looks like.