Top challenges ahead for CEOs

In the coming years, chief executives will face a number of challenges to their operations, their employee and customer relationships, and their efforts to harness technology for digital transformation. Six business leaders share the problems they see on the horizon


Queensway Group: managing uncertainty

With the pandemic still underway, the future remains unclear for many businesses, especially those in hospitality.

So Naushad Jivraj, CEO of Queensway Group, the parent company of Point A Hotels, has made connecting with his team a priority, including having one-to-one meetings in parks to ensure a face-to-face relationship.

“The pandemic has been incredibly tough for our 150 team members, who have had to adapt to furlough, the opening and closing of our properties and minimal occupancies in a usually thriving business,” he says. 

“Factoring in time to connect both individually, and as a group, is vital in maintaining visibility and encouraging two-way dialogue. The last 12 months have been personally challenging on many fronts. The pandemic reminded us of our fragility as human beings and the pace at which change can happen.” 

Jivraj is very confident of an upturn in bookings when things open again, with central locations in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow and soon Dublin being key drivers to recovery.

“Decision-making and stakeholder management in a constantly changing environment has been difficult,” he says. “Our long-standing, open and transparent dialogue and relationships with our investors, shareholders, banks and suppliers have been critical and remain a key priority as we work through the various financial and operational challenges that lie ahead.”

Walking With The Wounded: harnessing digital

The UK charity sector was hit hard in the past 12 months and a survey by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations suggests 43 per cent of organisations questioned have reduced their range of services since March 2020.

For Fergus Williams, CEO of Walking With The Wounded, which helps injured former British Armed Forces servicemen and women to career transition from military to civilian life, this now means embracing digital for fundraising and outreach more than ever.

“It is clear charities must continue to adapt to the new environment carved out by COVID-19. Digital strategy is a business imperative,” he says. 

“We created a digital working group and collectively identified key areas to focus on. From here, we developed our goals and timeline and started to map out a strategy. Digital transformation can be daunting. However, breaking it down into key areas makes it much more achievable.”

With 70 staff across three key hubs and working with more than 200 organisations, Williams says his challenge will be helping everyone understand their priorities. “I am looking at our people strategy to showcase the incredible talent within the wider team and look at our processes to ensure we are a people-first organisation,” he adds.


Yubico: ensuring business continuity

Navigating choppy waters is a key management skill and Stina Ehrensvärd, CEO of Yubico, recognises how you choose to adapt to events out of your control will be increasingly important.

Ehrensvärd, who created the security authentication YubiKey used by top companies worldwide, says the last 12 months were some of the “hardest we’ve ever experienced as a company”. 

While Yubico saw increased demand, because cyberattacks due to advanced phishing spiked dramatically with remote work, it also faced delays in the supply chain, impacting product launches.

“The biggest challenge was navigating a team in a world of uncertainty, a role far beyond running a company,” she says. “To keep my mind and body sane, I decided after a couple of weeks of lockdown to make meetings that did not require looking at data into walking conferences around my house, garden or in a nearby park. 

“My advice to CEOs during these times is to be kind to yourself and others. Focus on what is in front of you. Celebrate even the smallest of wins. Look for, and highlight, things that can make yourself and others smile. Be transparent and humble to your team and customers about the challenges.”

V.Group: revamping maritime

In his March Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced creation of a number of freeports across England, which are planned to help the country push global trade following Brexit.

And with 92 per cent of all goods transported by sea, René Kofod-Olsen, CEO at global ship management company V.Group, says he now faces a challenge to improve the perception of maritime trade and get it fit for the future.

“We have to renew, reinvigorate and further digitalise what’s often seen as a rather old-fashioned industry. Seafarers are the unsung heroes of global trade and they need to be valued far more, so our ultimate challenge is repositioning ‘brand maritime’,” he says.

“The relentless shifts in the global economy and trade patterns, coupled with perpetual advances in digitalisation, mean the view from the bridge is constantly changing. It is imperative I have a willingness to adapt to these changes and fast.”

Kofod-Olsen predicts having the right crewing strategies in place in the future will be a challenge for companies. “As business leaders emerge from a difficult period, they need to review their supply chain protocols and ensure they have contingency plans in place. Every sector of international business is likely to face logistical challenges in the next couple of years,” he warns. 

LONG TERM empowering women

While the number of female directors at FTSE 100 companies has increased by 50 per cent in the last five years, according to the government-backed Hampton-Alexander Review, there are still only a handful of female CEOs in the FTSE 350. 

Louise O’Shea, CEO of insurance price comparison website, is looking to the future to make practical changes. “As companies, we now have a big challenge as well as an opportunity, to make a difference for future generations of women,” she says. 

“We need to start by creating working environments that allow women to excel in their careers. Flexible and condensed working models need to become the norm, not the exception. That way we’re not stifling working mothers from progressing up the chain.

“As a female CEO, I want to set the precedent for other women that it’s possible to reach leadership, without having to sacrifice family life. 

“It needs to be a collaborative effort; it can’t be just females pushing the agenda, we need male allies to help drive this forward too. We must prioritise making pathways to leadership more accessible altogether, so we facilitate better inclusivity and diversity in general.”

Advanced: tackling climate change

When it comes to environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG), the potential for radical positive change is immense.

Gordon Wilson, CEO of Advanced, the UK’s third largest provider of business software and services, with a £254-million turnover, more than 19,000 customers and 2,400-plus employees, says, as an “ethical employer and supplier”, he wants to “leave an environmental mark as a CEO”.

“The scale of ESG is daunting and it’s crucial to distil the key priorities to align with our stakeholders, business strategy and values. ESG plans have to take action for things people care about,” he says.

“Our starting point has been the completion of an ESG maturity survey to baseline our starting position, focused on three key areas: protecting our planet, inclusivity, and social and community empowerment. From that point, we prioritised our initiatives and set targets.” 

This includes elements such as carbon footprints, the purpose of physical office spaces, business commuting and travel, and diversity and inclusion initiatives, notably female equality and disability.

“As a medium-sized business, we have the same challenges as large global corporates around ESG, but fewer resources to define our strategy and tackle it. So to achieve our goals, we must be agile and creative,” says Wilson.