by Louise Worbey, Global Head of GM, KPMG International

In July 2020 I wrote an article titled “flexibility and agility post COVID-19.” In it, I proposed that the flexibility and agility already embraced by GM functions would be invaluable in adapting to whatever new normal came from the pandemic. GM leaders would need to articulate the skill sets of their teams and support senior leadership through the changes - particularly in terms of ways of working and talent deployment. Doing so would be a significant advantage for those weary GM leaders still trying to get a foothold, let alone a seat, at the top table.

Revisiting that article, I realised that I never used the word resilience - an oversight on my part. As I reflect on the subsequent years, it’s clear that we all needed to find a measure of personal resilience, team resilience and organizational resilience in our everyday work.

Rewriting the playbook

The need for security support and to track the whereabouts of assignment personnel will trigger certain protocols and processes. Whether global or local, these events can impact you as a GM professional, as well as affecting your team and your organisation. I still vividly recall the assignee impact and follow up support required following 9/11, the July 2005 London bombings, the Fukushima Nuclear accident, and the Paris terror attacks in November 2015.

It is a cliché that the only constant is change, but the post COVID environment is showing no signs of slowing down, with events in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia once again testing even the most robust business continuity plans. In January this year, the Eurasia Group published its Top Risks for 2023, declaring, “we remain in the depths of a geopolitical recession, with the risks this year the most dangerous we've encountered in the 25 years since we started Eurasia Group.”

In that context, I agree with the RES Forum’s assertion that “organisations are no longer asking if they should build resilience but how.” And I agree that this involves more than simply pulling a business continuity playbook off the shelf. In fact, it’s time we considered rewriting the playbook to suit the new normal.

Changing course

As well as rewriting the playbook, now is the time for leadership to reset the tone and change-manage any adaptations in service offering, supply chains or through repurposing exercises.

This paper defines strategic adaptability while considering the potential speed for change and the ability to quickly pivot. I suggest that a considerable number of large multinationals will score low on any tool that measures these factors. In many cases, existing long term strategic planning inhibits the speed and desire for an alternative strategy. Besides, any adaptations can be as challenging as a tanker changing course mid route - often best avoided, unless critical to the survival of the business.

The level of adaptability can depend on the industry sector and the organisation’s financial health and obligations. For example, professional services consultants pivoted quickly during the pandemic to support public sector initiatives. NHS England hired a team of KPMG consultants to build the seven temporary Nightingale hospitals. Deloitte was appointed by the UK Government to create a network of COVID testing facilities. While EY worked alongside the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to provide guidance for various business sectors on how to reopen after the lockdown.

While partnering with government was not a new strategy, it received renewed focus to respond to the needs of the time. This combined seamlessly with the Big Four’s operational flexibility to channel resources into supporting a national priority.

Post pandemic, previous strategies were revisited and, in many ways, re-established. With modifications. However, for some organisations the change in strategy was irreversible. In the case of cashless payments, changes in retail spending behaviour and access to healthcare, there appears to be little possibility of going back. For organisations in these sectors, the strategic adaptability required has been considerable.

Innovation is no barometer of agility

I hesitate to agree with the view that adaptability is interconnected with an organisational capacity for innovation. However, in GM our capacity for innovation and a solutions focused approach does give us an edge over many other departments. As such, operational flexibility should be something every GM team is familiar with and ready for.

Most GM professionals will tell you that no two days are the same. Anyone that has been in the industry for more than a decade could write a book about the many weird and wonderful requests that demand a “creative”, flexible response. Remote working and virtual assignments are not new. They existed pre-COVID, but on a very different scale. Both have taken hours of senior GM leadership time, assessing how they complement or contradict existing policies.

We’ve asked many questions. Do they increase flexibility, retention, attraction and assignment volumes? Or do they add to complexity, risk, administration and even discrimination? Do the benefits bring enough value, or does the cost – financial and otherwise – outweigh the benefits?

Whatever the answer, it appears too late to put the genie back in the bottle. Let’s be honest, most organisations have seen a fundamental shift in how we work and how we respond to requests to work in ways we’d never previously considered.

A survival imperative

Risk management is where I believe the RES Forum Resilience Score will see its widest variance. The different levels of risk tolerance I’ve seen in member firms within the same organisation is substantial. That’s before you consider the differing risk tolerance between different sectors and industries.

At the highest scoring end, we find entire departments of specialists whose job is to predict and anticipate future risks - economic, geopolitical, environmental, regulatory, social. Meanwhile, other organisations can access the geopolitical risk dashboards and reports published by investment houses.

I think risk management is one of the pandemic’s most positive legacies. Being prepared is no longer an afterthought, it’s an essential component of future proofing organisations against risk. And it’s taken seriously in this age of active disruption – or, as Dr Bader puts it, it has become “a survival imperative”.


This piece was originally included in our research paper "Resilience and GM, the road ahead and lessons learned", which is available to download here.