5 minute read 6 May 2020
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How optimism and courage are the key to reshaping the ‘new normal’

By Alison Kay

EY UK&I Managing Partner for Client Service

Focused on delivering long-term value through purpose for clients. Diversity and inclusion ambassador. Happiest when spending time with family and friends. Loves to be near the ocean.

5 minute read 6 May 2020
Related topics COVID-19 Growth Digital Trust

COVID-19 is proving to be a defining moment for leaders. How will your business be remembered when we look back on early 2020?

I believe that how businesses respond now will shape their reputation for years to come. There’s a saying popular with teens my daughter’s age: Don’t judge me. But as governments spend public money to keep businesses and the economies afloat, don’t we all have a stake in how it is spent? Employees, customers, suppliers and the broader public – they’re all watching (and yes, judging) businesses to see how they treat people, customers, suppliers and stakeholders. They’re also noting the sacrifices some are making to see people through this crisis.

Optimism and courage

There’s a quote that I keep coming back to from Ernest Shackleton: “Optimism is true moral courage.”

I think optimism and courage are needed more than ever as we shape our new normal.

It takes both optimism and courage to see beyond the immediate crisis. To hold true to an organization’s purpose. To take the long-term view through this overwhelming pandemic. I believe leaders who can truly demonstrate these qualities will emerge stronger, more trusted and more valued.

Expectations of business are broadening. Governments are spending public money – and rightly so – to prop up wages, to provide funds to businesses, and to keep economies going. In accepting public money, there comes a wider public scrutiny for how businesses behave. Stakeholders have expanded to employees, customers, suppliers and society – and they’ll remember who treated them well in their time of need.

Keeping purpose front and center

At the beginning of the crisis, some wondered whether purpose, long-term value and environmental concerns would be shelved as companies struggled to survive. I think the opposite has been true. It’s been heartening to see companies doing the right thing and taking action. 

As a member of the EY executive team, and someone who has been fortunate enough to return to health after contracting the coronavirus disease, I’m proud of how the EY organization is taking care of its people. EY Global Chairman and CEO, Carmine Di Sibio, was clear that during the crisis the top EY priority is people: protecting their health and reassuring them that their jobs are intact during this critical time.

Walking the talk

A common theme emerged during the CEO perspective webcast that the EY team was delighted to convene on 17 April: taking care of your people and putting values into action. Prominent CEOs from global businesses – Barclays Bank, BP, Dell Technologies and Unilever – held a frank discussion of how they’re responding to the crisis, what gives them hope and how COVID-19 has changed conversations they’re having in the business.

It’s not enough to talk the talk on purpose anymore. The current crisis demands that companies walk the talk.

The common theme was action. It’s not enough to talk the talk. The current crisis demands that companies walk the talk. This is being done in many ways, for example:

  • BP, despite the oil price slump and the current crisis, has redoubled its commitment to tackling climate change and the energy transition. The company has deferred pay raises across the company, donated fuel in the UK for emergency services and announced a large donation to a mental health charity to help people through this critical time.
  • Barclays is offering free banking and overdrafts to small businesses, payment holidays and waiving fees for customers, created a £100m COVID-19 Community Aid package for charities and is helping to implement the UK Government’s support schemes for businesses.
  • Dell Technologies has donated US$3m in cash and technology to front-line organizations dealing with COVID-19, as well as millions to help communities treat and contain COVID-19.
  • Unilever, which manufactures many of the products in high demand right now – is donating €100m worth of basic hygiene products and food to support efforts around the world. CEO Alan Jope also outlined how the company is helping small to mid-sized retailers along its supply chain who depend on Unilever with €500m of cash flow relief.

A time of reckoning

It very much feels like this is a time of reckoning. I would say that if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s confirmed that value extends across profit to people and the planet.

As we begin to build the new normal, we need to ask if we can rebuild it better. Do we have the courage to tackle the tough challenges like climate change, inequality and building more inclusive societies? Can we initiate change now?

If we do, we will build trust. Trust in businesses that focus on their wider purpose and value. Businesses that don’t shy away from challenging conversations about what to do today, as well as how to balance economies down the road. The companies that are going to come out stronger on the other side are those that demonstrate optimism and courage. Those that remain true to their purpose. And those that take the longer-term view to help others and make the short-term financial sacrifices needed for the good of communities and society. 

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Summary

Leaders need optimism and courage more than ever as we shape the future post COVID-19. During the EY CEO perspective webcast on 17 April 2020, a common theme emerged: taking care of your people and putting values into action. It’s not enough to talk the talk on purpose. The current crisis demands that companies walk the talk. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s confirmed that value extends across profit to people and the planet. As we begin to build the ‘new normal,’ we need to have the courage to tackle the tough challenges that affect us all.

About this article

By Alison Kay

EY UK&I Managing Partner for Client Service

Focused on delivering long-term value through purpose for clients. Diversity and inclusion ambassador. Happiest when spending time with family and friends. Loves to be near the ocean.

Related topics COVID-19 Growth Digital Trust