By Nick Irving, partner
Much has been written about 2020, the very strangest and most tragic of years, and I do not think I need to ruminate any further on just what a tough year it has been for business. Suffice to say, I do not think many of us will be lamenting its passing at midnight on December 31st.
We have all had to embrace new ways of working and trial new approaches to keep our heads above water. Business has been forced to change. From the symbolic (will a handshake ever mark a sealed deal again?) to the fundamental, there have been marked shifts in how we approach our work.
But the signs are there for another new normal for business in 2021. I am not sure we will ever go back to the way things were — already it seems completely alien to be meeting in large groups or in close spaces — but we cannot hold back the tides of change. The world is itching to get back to work and many businesses have had to find ways to adapt to enable this to happen.
Coupled with very encouraging news about vaccines coming from Pfizer and Moderna, and indications of more good news to come from the Oxford trial among others, I am buoyed about the prospect of a prosperous year ahead after what has been a disastrous 10 months for the vast majority of sectors.
Of course, it would be nice to see more support from the British Government for certain sectors, especially aviation and its aligned businesses, which have been forgotten casualties of the pandemic. Rapid testing, trialed with success at Heathrow Airport and already in place in other countries, is one clearly effective way of enabling this troubled sector to open up again by giving customers confidence that they will be able to fly and holiday safely. At the time of writing the government has recently announced a package of support for aviation and we are now starting to see how the ‘test and release’ system will work and I have no doubt that it will be welcomed universally.
The executive search sector is often seen as the bell weather for economic confidence and it is very encouraging to hear from many of our clients that they are planning to commence executive hiring in Q1 of 2021. They simply explain that they cannot hold back their business’ agenda and need to move forward. As we wrote in our business update earlier in the year, the headline narrative remains the same that businesses are looking for leaders with strong transformation experience that can drive the change agenda. This sentiment is same across all Howgate Sable’s markets, consumer, aviation and infrastructure, healthcare and industrial.
I spoke with a long-time client and friend of mine, Feilim Mackle; an experienced Non-Executive Chair who also held executive positions with RBS, Aegon and Telefonica, to gauge his views on the new normal and subsequent recovery next year.
He commented: “2020 has been an unimaginable year by so many definitions. In the business world we have all had to lean in to many new challenges, unfamiliar scenarios, and relentless, unprecedented levels of uncertainty.
“In the quest for survival and indeed, looking forward to 2021 and beyond, we have all had to do more with less. This is not easy.
“What has remained constant, however, is the ongoing importance of obsessing about the customer, transforming at pace and low(er) cost, meaningfully engaging and supporting every employee and ensuring you have the right leadership talent at the table to navigate your way to a brighter future.”
Beyond the pandemic and as we move into 2021, there is another big change on the horizon: Brexit. In the south west, virtual trade missions to Mexico and Chile are happening this month, facilitated by the Department for International Trade with a view to support business deals that cannot currently happen face-to-face.
Meanwhile, British exports to China are strong, valued at £30bn in 2019 and maintaining a steady rate so far this year. Food and drink are particularly high-profile exports to China and Brexit should aid this from 2021 as the UK will be free to forge its own deal.
And in the north west, plans have been submitted for a colossal recycling plant — another sector which will continue to be solid. After all, waste recycling will be a continual focus for as long as our way of living exists.
The business conversation has changed from the open-mouthed disbelief of spring 2020 into a thoroughly British grit and determination to deal with the situation and move on. Businesses from every sector are coming to us to help them with their plans for 2021 as they seek to reestablish a new order and find their feet in a post-pandemic world. As I have already said, you cannot hold back the tide of change forever. It is time to embrace our new world with positivity and prosperity. Let us get back to work.