Sunnie J. Groeneveld
Entrepreneur, board member, author and director of studies. She is the founder and Managing Partner of the consultancy Inspire 925, serves on the board of directors of five SMEs in Switzerland and is an Associate Dean of Studies at the HWZ University of Applied Sciences in Business Administration, where she is responsible for the Executive MBA in Digital Leadership. Past engagements include her role as the first managing director of digitalswitzerland. Author of the book “Inspired at Work” (Versus publishing), she has also featured in the “Top 100 Women in Business”, Handelszeitung’s “Top 50 Who is Who in Digital Switzerland” and Forbes 30 under 30. Sunnie graduated in Economics from Yale University.
As we emerge from the acute phase of the COVID-19 crisis, our journey towards a new normal begins. EY asked various thought leaders and decision makers to take stock and share their insights into what’s next. Sunnie J. Groeneveld, founder and Managing Partner of the consultancy Inspire 925, talks about how life has – and hasn’t – changed and why closer connections are good for corporate culture.
The new normal has found its way into our everyday lives. With this in mind, what did your day look like yesterday?
My working day started at home with an Inspire 925 team kick-off, followed by a team lunch – both virtual. In the afternoon, I interviewed a professor from Columbia Business School for the channel F15’. It’s part of a series that I launched with Forbes Magazine in which I spend 15 minutes talking with interesting personalities from the digital world. The day ended with a few virtual client meetings concerning various projects of Inspire 925 over the next six months.
What was a typical day like a year ago?
The same day did not exist in this format. I didn’t start off working from home, team kick-offs and lunches were not virtual. And I wouldn’t have had any capacity for the F15’ series last year because I was so booked up as a keynote speaker and moderator. I was able to accept this project in the midst of the crisis because many of my talks or panel discussions were postponed or canceled.
How did the lockdown affect you personally?
Most of all I really missed the social contact. Followed by the possibility to travel, visit people abroad and take a city trip with friends over a long weekend. I had planned most of my skiing vacation for March; those plans fell through, as did a US trip in May. You start actively looking forward to these things, so you miss them when they can’t happen. And then you have to decide: do I want to focus on all the things I’m missing or everything that I can still do? I quite quickly tried to gravitate toward the second option and that saw me through the lockdown.
I asked myself, do I want to focus on all the things I’m missing or everything that I can still do?
How would you describe our current environment?
I think we’re at a defining moment in time right now. There’s not yet a consensus within society or the economy on what constitutes the new normal. We’re in the process of defining it, working out how much of the old reality we want to keep and how much we want – or need – to change; which aspects of the past are really key and which things people want to reconsider and do differently going forward.
Let’s talk more about the working environment. You’re on the board of directors of various SMEs. How have these companies been doing over the last three months?
All five companies already had concrete action plans in place to counter COVID-19 with various levels of escalation. There also was a high level of coordination between the management and the board of directors throughout the lockdown period. This included holding extraordinary board meetings or weekly video calls to keep up to date on latest developments and take decisions swiftly together. Depending on the business, we also evaluated credit options and, of course, short-time work was also filed in certain cases. Across all organizations, the boards started to work with an entirely digital setup. None of the companies had ever done this so comprehensively before. Reporting frequency also increased and financial resources – especially liquidity – were scrutinized much more carefully. But with the extra effort of employees and the management, all of the companies have gotten through the crisis relatively intact so far, albeit with big challenges or revenue dips in some cases. But well enough that we’ve fortunately not had to take the worst kind of measures, such as layoffs.
The board of directors started to work with an entirely digital setup – none of the companies had done that before.
What will change at these companies in the next three months?
I’ve already attended my first physical BoD meeting since the crisis. You can go through agenda points relatively well digitally, but if you want to discuss strategic ideas, it just works better in person. The physical aspect will remain, but probably not to the same extent as before. We are considering keeping the digital format for shorter sessions. Everyone will continue and maybe even increase working from home, especially since it seems to be more widely accepted by the leadership now. We’ve also agreed on what digital tools to use; previously, there was still lots of testing going on. The various companies have also seen their corporate culture undergo a shift. There have been many moments where you got much closer to the person; not the employee, which is only one side of a person, but truly the individual human being. After all, we’ve had a virtual glimpse of many people in their homes over the last few months, which creates a closer human connection.
Compared to one year ago, is there a change in the way you differentiate between your professional and private life?
No. My professional life has always required high availability, but also allowed great flexibility. So I’ve always lived a life where the professional and private aspects flow together. I live a work-life integration. If I didn’t embrace this integrated approach, it wouldn’t be possible to serve as a board member, while at the same time being a dean of studies and heading up a consultancy. In general, I am happy to invest a lot of myself into the things I do, but at the same time I am also very fortunate to get a lot of energy back from it. For me, this works brilliantly, though it’s important to acknowledge that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You need to recharge. And you have to make time for that in some way or another – that’s really vital.
A crisis is a great source of ideas, so make the effort to really listen and explore opportunities.
Marathon is the right word. What are your marathon tips for our readers as they continue along their professional paths in the future?
First of all, it’s a mistake if the only thing you are doing in this crisis is cutting costs. Second, a crisis can become a great source of ideas – at every level of the company. So I would recommend to really listen and explore within your organization the opportunities for new ideas and projects that could be realized or initiated, perhaps things that were unthinkable in the past. And to be open to change, for example by embracing digital collaboration or co-working. Third, it is really important to pay attention to how you maintain and strengthen your company culture throughout this crisis. At the end of the day, it is your employees who have been keeping the lights on in your organization despite the crisis. It’s their dedication that makes a firm successful – in the medium and long-term. We must never forget that people are the most valuable part of our organizations. And they’re what we should be looking after. That doesn’t mean that there will not be any difficult decisions. There will. Dealing with it in the right way is what counts – for example by always communicating transparently, clearly and empathetically. An economically challenging time may soon be upon us and it’s precisely because of this that we should honor the human aspect in all decisions.