ICAS President: No time like the present
In her final column as ICAS President, Catherine Burnet CA says we must seize the moment to reshape business around a new set of values
What a year it has been. The past 12 months have been tumultuous for all, presenting significant personal and professional challenges and demanding agility like never before. It’s something I have kept close to heart as ICAS President and when speaking to CAs from across the globe (see p37).
Looking ahead, as millions more are vaccinated and restrictions slowly lifted, there is a renewed sense of excitement about business. The silver lining of the past 12 months is that we have all been forced to question our long-held assumptions about “the way things are”. Whether that’s remote working, flexible hours or rethinking business travel, the rulebook has been thrown out of the window and we have a unique opportunity to start afresh.
Business has a responsibility to create a vision of the future, building credibility and confidence with employees and customers. We must build on the gains of the past year, such as more flexible working arrangements and, especially as we travel less, committing to net-zero emissions. The lifting of restrictions is not a reason to rush back to the past. Instead, exiting the worst months of the pandemic is a time for leaders to prove they have listened and learned and are actively working to improve business for employee and client alike.
Now is the time for business to really determine where its responsibilities lie – and there are many questions to be answered in this new world. What are the core values driving your business and how do you communicate them externally? How invested are you in your employees’ wellbeing? What about sustainability and diversity? These issues are now inextricably linked with business performance; as potential customers, employees and investors vote with the choices they make, they are no longer nice-to-haves. The ethical has merged with the financial argument to create an ever-more compelling mission to do good.
Even a year ago, stakeholder capitalism was talked about in relatively abstract terms – something in the distant future. Now, following the worst of the pandemic, it feels like the timeline has accelerated. In a matter of months, people have become much more conscious about the businesses they’re engaging with and their impact on the world around them. I believe we are currently witnessing stakeholder capitalism jump from theory to reality – and we must make sure that business is agile and creative enough to fit this new model. If we don’t adjust now, our businesses risk being left behind.
It all has a significant impact on the behaviour of leaders, too. Authentic leadership will drive businesses, bringing in those employees, customers and investors who seek all-important value and purpose. Leaders must be collaborative and compassionate, understanding the drivers of modern business and recognising each employee has an entire world that exists outside the office. One of the great ironies of the pandemic is that we have all become more communicative. When you aren’t together in person, you aren’t necessarily “living” those changes in real time, and the value of actively creating a conversation increases dramatically.
In this sense, the pandemic has helped to break down old formalities. Over video, we’ve each had unprecedented insight into how our colleagues live, meeting partners, children and pets, and seeing how they prefer to combine their personal and professional lives. As we return to offices in some form, and hybrid working becomes commonplace, let’s not forget those snapshots. People want empathy and understanding from leaders – turning our back on colleagues now would be not only personally damaging, but would hurt businesses financially too.
As I pass on the baton of the ICAS presidency, I hope Covid’s lasting legacy is that we use this time to think critically about the underlying assumptions on which our economy is built. I know ICAS is actively embedding what we have learnt over the past 12 months. We have a window of opportunity to reimagine business around a new set of assumptions: inclusion, empathy and collaboration. It has been a privilege to serve as ICAS President in what has been a unique year and I offer my very best wishes to my successor.