What leaders think
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The Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview: Debbie Hewitt

Hoggett Bowers 2 Minute Interview
Debbie Hewitt MBE, Non-Executive Chair of:
The Restaurant Group plc, Visa Europe Limited, BGL (owners of
ComparetheMarket.com) and fashion retailer White Stuff Limited.

What challenge did you tackle and overcome in your business this week?

A Bank refinancing – liquidity and cash flow has been a common theme across many businesses during this crisis. In this particular case we have brought our plans forward. It’s good to have it landed.

Which ongoing business challenge is occupying your thoughts this week/month?

Return to the office. A priority for most business. Opening offices is proving to be a more complex process than closing them down. The mental health implications differ by individual and the social distancing is influenced by the size of the offices, some of which are shared with other tenants. Location plays a part too – if the only practical option to travel to and from work is public transport, some individuals, not unnaturally, feel uncomfortable.  Our priority is taking care of our people and the detailed planning is a significant addition to the ‘to do’ lists of the teams I work with.

It is changing the way we think about office-based roles. The key will be adopting a more flexible approach to where work gets done, without losing the spontaneity of thinking that often comes from working side by side with other colleagues. Different generations seemingly have different perspectives about the benefits of being in an office both from a personal and business perspective and organisations will need to reflect this. I feel sure our thinking about all of this will change again when we have a vaccine, though I think that a reduction to business travel and more flexible working patterns are here to stay in some measure.

In retrospect what would you have done differently in lockdown, and how may this shape thinking for any future lockdown (local or national)?

Moved more quickly to shorten and diversify our supply chains. Many consumers first experienced this crisis through disruptions in the supply chain.  For the foreseeable future, risk tolerances are likely to be low and our plans are biased toward resilience, more so than efficiency. Just in case as opposed to just in time!

I’d also be very mindful of talent bandwidth issues across the business. In moments of crisis, the key decisions sit with a handful of people and given that was initially a health crisis, businesses were even more vulnerable if key people were ill. The concept of ‘talent in reserve’ comes into its own. It really does highlight why strength and depth in talent across any business is a commercial essential and why, when you invest in a business – you really are investing in the team.

Positively, anyone that is managing through this lockdown will be adding hugely to their skills. As someone reminded me last week, there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.   Anyone in a position of responsibility through this period will have significantly accelerated their learning. It will certainly shape thinking for any future lockdown.

Given the reliance on technology during lockdown, do you now envisage an acceleration in digital/ workforce transformation in the short-term medium term?

Undoubtedly. More typically, when planning digital transformations, most businesses overestimate what can happen in one year and underestimate what can happen in five. The last few months have flipped that rule. The world has jumped forward at least 5 years–in terms of technology, consumer behaviours and working practices and companies will need to embrace and leverage this shift, not as a competitive advantage, but to survive.  As well as threat, it brings opportunity. The shift to online in retail and hospitality has attracted many new customers. The opportunity, as lockdown eases, will be to give them a reason to stay.

In terms of bringing about transformational change we have arguably been too risk averse in the past. Many businesses moved to a working from home scenario within days. Pre-Covid this would have been seen as much too risky.

What are the new working norms starting to look like for your organisation?

Social distancing and rota working makes it almost impossible for a team of a certain size to be back in the office together, so zoom and teams looks very likely to continue to be a part of mix going forward. For Board meetings, I’d ideally prefer to have everyone present or all virtual – but I’m adapting, especially as things change at short notice, especially with regard to the rules on quarantine for those who are based outside the UK.

Trading is much more volatile than pre lockdown and those forecasting and planning the business have the additional challenge of dealing with more pronounced local patterns of trading.  

There was a dramatic reduction in our carbon footprint during lockdown, what is your business planning to help continue this going forward?

Its significance has certainly moved up the agenda of all stakeholders. One of the CEO’s I work with has launched a Zero Carbon Forum, an initiative for the hospitality sector, to define a net zero roadmap, working with UK Hospitality to set benchmarks, access expertise, share learning and provide a collective voice on climate policies and funding opportunities.

I think it is one of those areas where collaboration, rather than competition across sectors, is going to be critical to progress.

What changes personally will you keep from the lockdown period going forward?

Less commuting (both UK and International travel) and more family time.Initially the additional time created by reduced commuting was directed into home schooling our two 11-year-old twins, Ellie and Wills, along with my Husband, Paul. It was a challenge for all of us – especially the twins as the school day started earlier and finished later as we tried to fit everything in alongside our work responsibilities. Their return to school in June brought the best of all worlds, no more home schooling but plenty of quality family time in the evenings. I’m grateful for that and am determined to retain it.

Who or what has inspired you this week? (They don’t need to be famous)

The twins’ new Form Teacher. They both start the same senior school for the first time in September and have the same Form Teacher. Her meticulous instructions as to how they can prepare for the first few weeks has been thoughtful, caring and pragmatic. I have a new respect for teachers – and particularly this one who seems to have spent her summer holiday thinking about how to take any unnecessary stress away from the kids and as importantly, their parents! That’s some leadership from someone we have only met virtually.

Did you manage a holiday this summer and if so where / how did you spend it?

A family holiday in France. The blue skies and sunshine were a much nicer backdrop for the occasional zoom meetings!

Any words of wisdom?

The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.

We are only really at the end of the beginning of this pandemic and over the next few months and possibly years, businesses and their leaders will be defined by their ability to master the disruption it is causing.

How a business fares in the face of that disruption will be partly down to the external environment, which is beyond management’s control and the speed of response and quality of their leadership, which are absolutely within it.