“Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.” This succinct apothegm offered by Mukhtar Hussain, Group General Manager for Asia Pacific and Hong Kong at HSBC, might sum up much of thought leadership at the 11th Limassol Economic Forum on Friday.
The Forum explored a truly daunting topic: How can CEOs succeed as leaders today, faced with one of the most challenging environments in recent history?
Business leaders and academics in the forum responded: Stop leading from the top down, and create a network of trusted colleagues with whom all information is shared and who can share responsibilities so that the organisation achieves resilience.
The theme of collaboration pervaded the conference, which was held entirely online and at which more than 1,o0o people participated – a fine paradigm for digital sharing.
Uncertainty from now until 2030 and beyond
George Lakkotrypis, General Manager of LMA Advisory Ltd and former Cyprus Minister of Energy kicked off the conference with a long catalogue of areas in which we suffer from vast uncertainty today.
“How can CEOs survive and thrive faced with uncertainty in every aspect of business life,” he asked?
Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf didn’t provide much comfort as he forecast trends and megatrends for the coming decade.
He emphasised the growing importance of China and forecast that it would be a larger economy than that of the US by 2030. “There will be a massive shift in the world economy to Asian dominance,” he pointed out.
“Meanwhile, the world will get hot,” he warned, as climate change response efforts are relatively ineffective. The average temperature will go to about 1 per cent over preindustrial levels by 2030, and reach 1.59 per cent above those levels by 2050.
Trade will suffer, as globalisation fizzles out, Wolf continued. On the other hand, virtual globalisation, which has increased by 2,000 per cent since the pandemic started, will continue its acceleration.
“In fact, the world is moving towards complete connection,” Wolf said, although the pace of that movement is difficult to predict – currently we’re at 15 per cent and we’ll perhaps reach 20 per cent by 2030.
Wolf does expect an upsurge of economic activity once the pandemic is behind us, and after a long hangover. Inflation should also pick up within a few years, but the climate of low interest rates, he says, will remain.
And we may have to expect nuclear war and vast numbers of refugees fleeing unliveable conditions.
CEO must adapt rapidly with short- and long-term solutions
“But managers must run towards their fears, not away from them,” HSBC’s Hussain commented.
For the CEO, coping with all this uncertainty means changing culture and adopting new processes, Professor Rym Avadi, Ayadi, President of the Euro-Mediterranean Economists Association, told the conference.
“The CEO must embrace transparency, accountability, build trust, and keep people motivated and engaged. In terms of processes, management should devise and Early Warning System, to detect risks, a Crisis Management System, and a Recovery and Adaptation System to keep the organisation on track and to keep up with rapid change,” she explained.
HSBC’s Hussain agreed, noting that the bank spends $100 million per year on leadership training.
Hussain emphasised the role of the leader in empowering others. “We have to accelerate change,” he insisted, “and sharing information and authority are key to this effort.”
Similarly, Marc-François, chair of the Paris-based Galileo Global Education, stressed the role of the CEO in helping colleagues realising their potential. “The CEO should not manage from the top down,” he said,“the very concept of management is rooted in taking care of people, and the CEO should see this as a fundamental part of the role,” he pointed out.
Achieving a culture of innovation
Nearly all of the speakers at the conference said that stimulating innovation, and creating a culture of innovation, were key responsibilities of the CEO – it is seen as a response to adversity, increasing the competitivity of the organisation.
“I seek to create a bank that becomes a more modern institution, one that supports the country in rebuilding after the pandemic,” said Panicos Nicolaou, CEO of the Bank of Cyprus. “It will be a bank that does not just make loans, but one that provides solutions.”
Nicolaou seeks to create trust and promote creativity among his colleagues. “I decide what to do, but they decide the best way to accomplish the task,” he said, adding that increasing digitalisation, bringing customers online and adding online facilities for clients were the focus of the bank’s innovation efforts.
Elias Neocleous, managing partner at the Limassol-based Elias Neocleous & Co, sees a focus on his firm’s strengths, and how they can be channelled to fill future gaps for client needs, as a means to foster innovation.
“What we do in today’s conditions is an experiment in real life,” Neocleous noted.
“To succeed, we try to embody culture in every aspect of the business so that quality is visible everywhere. We are honest with our people, we talk through problems and give them a rational basis for hope.”
Neocleous focuses innovation on an effort to impact future legal processes with new technology, creating a platform where clients and others can access some information and services online, as well as a legal tech lab at the intersection of lawyers, IT professionals and engineers. These projects rely on the law firm’s own data centre.
“All of this can change and dramatically increase the value of legal services and their impact on clients,” he said.
Andreas Neocleous, CEO of the state-owned telecommunications firm, has a somewhat different approach. “For us, as a state-owned company, it all begins with solid financial performance. With that KPI in place, we dedicate ourselves to innovation.”
Cyta devotes much effort to improving the customer experience, and today has begun measuring the emotional connection of customers and employees to the company.
“In three years, we expect to have grown financially, and we want to evolve into a more modern and flexible company, something that resembles the telecoms companies of Europe,” Neocleous says. “To do this, I have to be a superb leader, one who is passionate, but shows respect to others, and a great communicator.”
Great communication would indeed seem to be the sine qua non of leaders in this crisis period, in which building trust among colleagues is just as important as developing a winning market strategy.
The Forum was sponsored by Elias Neocleous & Co, Cyta, Deloitte and the Bank of Cyprus.