The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we lived overnight. To say it’s also had far-reaching effects for businesses is an understatement. “2020 was unprecedented,” says Greg Case, CEO of Aon, a leading global professional services firm . “Never before has every company in the world been forced to address the same single risk at the same time, no matter their size, industry or geography.”
As the leader of a company that helps organizations around the world make better decisions — particularly around risk — Case has a unique perspective on how deeply businesses were hit by the pandemic. He and Aon have also had to adjust their ways of working, model risk, and manage a host of new challenges, from the health and welfare of employees, to volatile markets and instances of global unrest. “We’ve witnessed a fundamental reordering of client priorities on a global scale,” Case says. “[Clients] are turning to us and asking, How do we prepare for the next pandemic? How do we protect and value our intangible assets and intellectual property? How do we mitigate the systemic impact of climate change, or address critical social issues like the health and wealth gap?”
Perhaps the biggest change business leaders face is the suddenly-urgent need to actively anticipate and plan for risk scenarios that were formerly considered edge cases. “It is no longer enough to react and adapt,” Case says. “The pandemic proved that risks once thought of as rare are becoming more common. The need to better assess, understand, and plan for potential risks, particularly those long-tail in nature, has never been greater.”
New priorities, new ways of working
If business leaders’ priorities have changed, so too have the tools they use to analyze risk, accomplish goals, and make better decisions. Byron Spruell, President of League Operations for the NBA, cites a renewed reliance on data to navigate unexpected challenges like the sudden shuttering of sports arenas during the 2020 season. “Data has been key in leading our decision-making,” Spruell says, “from analyzing medical information, to visiting with our teams to determine what we can collectively achieve as a league.” Spruell’s data dive helped quantify the risks of returning to in-person games, assess the readiness of teams and fans to continue the season, and determine the logistics of continuing the sport safely.
But while data can help model complex problems, it’s not always enough to make the better decision. Spruell also cites a renewed reliance on empathetic leadership characterized by listening, understanding, and communicating effectively. “The hardest part in my role is to ensure all of our stakeholders are heard, and find the right solution that everybody can ultimately agree to.” Spruell sees a key part of his role as facilitating conversations and building consensus, with ample data to inform critical decisions.
At Aon, the lodestar is “resilience.” What Case has experienced both with his own firm and in his conversations with clients is the need to reject what many would accept as a “new normal” and to build a path forward based on better decision making. It’s “a call to develop new ways of working together, view challenges as opportunities, and help each other and our clients become more flexible, adaptive, and resilient.” To achieve it, Aon formed 10 coalitions of business and community leaders spread across four continents. Together, they examine issues arising from the pandemic, share key learnings and insights, and help develop best practices to respond to the pandemic’s challenges and drive sustainable recovery.
The growing role of social responsibility
The last year also expanded the scope of what we expect from business leaders. Increasingly, CEOs consider social responsibility a key factor in good governance — and both shareholders and the public at large are demanding accountability around issues like diversity/equity and environmental sustainability.
In the year since the global protests against police brutality and widespread support for the Black Lives Matter movement, businesses have seen that their approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion must go beyond a corporate ethics statement, and deliver on concrete, measurable actions. As President and CEO of OneTen, Maurice Jones helms a particularly bold undertaking — helping one million Black Americans be hired and promoted into living-wage, family-sustaining careers in the next 10 years. To accomplish this, Jones has convened a coalition of over 50 CEOs committed to training, hiring, and promoting Black talent. Critically, the companies will embrace a skills-based approach to hiring and promoting, with OneTen coordinating a variety of training and certificate programs, rather than requiring four-year degrees which can be a barrier for Black jobseekers.
Jones is also ensuring ongoing commitment to DE&I efforts: “Companies are committing to a 10-year journey [with OneTen]. The idea is, let’s do this long enough to really change the companies, change the trajectory of Black talent and their families, and hopefully, change the trajectory of the country,” he says.
In addition to its own DE&I initiatives, Aon — a founding member of OneTen — is also strengthening its commitment to a range of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals, such as committing to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. “We will adopt achievable objectives focused on sustainable sourcing, energy efficiency, business travel and renewable energy,” Case says. He believes implementing such sustainability goals better prepares Aon to help clients realize their own ESG needs. If 2020 and 2021 were the years of public calls to action around corporate social responsibility, perhaps 2021 will usher in an era of business leaders working together to hold each other accountable to deliver.
The future of governance
The business leaders we spoke to agreed that this is only the beginning of how their roles will evolve. As part of his mission with OneTen, Jones is helping CEOs better understand what true equity and inclusion looks like at all levels of their organization: “In addition to hard and soft skills, employees also need wraparound support,” Jones says. “We’re asking corporations, what are you doing to ensure that your talent of color have mentors and sponsors from day one? What is their career pathway? How can we help them become part of the corporate culture?” Educating business leaders and helping them build ongoing talent supports into their company culture ensures long-term success for employees of color, Jones says.
Spruell sees adaptability and accountability as the key traits of successful leaders now and going forward. “The basics of leadership will be the same — but we have to evolve and adapt to what’s occurring in the world. More than ever, leaders must be intentional, clearly articulate their goals, and have direct metrics that they’re accountable to.”
Based on his conversations and research conducted by Aon, Case firmly believes that the pandemic has profoundly changed the CEO agenda forever. But if the focus of leadership has changed to have a deeper focus on the impact of risks like climate change and cyber threats, business leaders must be better prepared. “Change is the constant,” Case says. “It’s part of what makes the job so exciting and meaningful. New risks keep emerging, and as leaders, it’s our job to respond and prepare our organizations and our colleagues to meet those challenges by helping them make better decisions.”