UK Business Looks To The Future And The Need For A New Mind-Set
In London yesterday, at the CBI's annual conference #CBI2017, a surprising thing happened. Business leaders in Britain stepped firmly up to take a strong leadership role in taking the country forward, come what may regarding the implementation of Brexit.
The speaker line-up provided an early clue into dual priorities for businesses seeking a competitive edge in a fast-changing world: diversity and the adept use of technology. But it was the atmosphere that was tantalising. At a time when we seem in the UK to have become immune to paralysis caused by political ineptitude, it was a day that gave a glimpse into the very real power of intellectual collaboration for progress. It was also, for me, a celebration of the diversity of the individual in an unexpected place.
Omar Abbosh , Accenture's chief strategy officer (born in Syria, degree in electronic engineering from Cambridge University) delivered a fast-paced presentation that made the brain swirl, an essential prerequisite for innovation of any description. You can read his thoughts on facing the future, not fearing it, on the CBI website. Or you can watch this video of him talking about technology and 'disruption.'
Not only did we hear in person from the tech companies that are everyday household names - via Microsoft President Brad Smith and Twitter's head of EMEA Bruce Daisley, but there was a welcome diversity of appearance and presentation.
For too long business in the UK has suffered from a 'stuffy' image of conservatism hidebound by what passes as 'tradition' (or 'uniform' to critics on the outside) - suits for the men, and uncomfortable footwear for the women. Think about the financial services industry if you are having trouble with this ....
When there has been so much talk about 'diversity' in the UK in the last five years, and companies talk endlessly about 'bringing your whole self to work', that kind of uniformity of appearance tends to be met with a fair amount of public cynicism, and mistrust.
So, I think it mattered that Bruce Daisley wandered on stage starting to speak before he arrived at the central point, that ties were not in evidence for all, that high heels were not de rigueur among the women, that male delegates were wearing funky socks with their casual smart attire (at least one was, because I complimented him on them) and that the young entrepreneurs could be seen quite clearly as people first, not a gender-dressed stereotype.
We had insights from interviews in pairs with those using technology as an enabler for growth. (Quick anecdotal surveys by me in the uncontrolled environment of networking afterwards with champagne did suggest that for many people, this was the most exciting and useful session.)
It was also interesting to note there was a woman in each pair of interviews - all I can say is that the world must have changed a lot since 2011 when the UK couldn't find any suitable women to fulfill its targets for non-executive directors at listed companies. Either that or the current leadership at the CBI has its finger more closely on the pulse of business transformation.
The pairs were Debbie Wosskow, Founder Love Home Swap (@DebbieWossk) and Gordon Gurnik, President RCI Affiliates; Estelle Brachlianoff Senior EVP UK&I, Veolia (@Estelle_Veolia) and Matt Brookes MD, Selected Interventions and Eileen Burbidge Passion Capital and Special Envoy for FinTech, UK Treasury (@eileentso) and Mark Wilson, CEO Aviva plc.
The women are on Twitter, but not the men - hence the discrepancy in mentioning Twitter handles. I will say that of all those pairs, only one had equal engagement from both gender halves - generally it seemed to be the women who captured audience attention. You can of course check that against the #CBI2017 Twitter feed.
It was a very exciting day, not least because it demonstrated again that leadership is not always conferred: it can be seized by those with the best ideas, and the crowd.
On a personal note, one reason this post is so late is that I spent literally hours - more than two, close to three at peak 'school run' time on some essential domestic errands. I burnt a lot of unleaded petrol and time and I railed at appalling infrastructure - the delays were caused by repairs around Sevenoaks: potholes, broadband installation, gas work - you name it. The total distance needed to travel was under 15 miles.
Commercial radio suggested that Kent in general was gridlocked. Did I mention the weather, and the accidents ?
The point is we are clearly in a mess as a country when it comes to transport and infrastructure. I cannot imagine how people commute every day - and when I finally picked up the parcel UPS managed not to deliver except to its own collection point miles away I regaled the customers in the newsagent with that question. The answer from a genial commuter ? "We get up very early to avoid the traffic and we don't get a lot done."
About that UK Productivity Puzzle...There is just no way that we are going to be able to deal with the infrastructure issues we have across the entire UK, even without the monetary burden of Brexit. I came back into work from almost no time in journalism for over 20 years and more, to being in a position of being able to pick and choose what I do - and I did it against the age barrier and by leveraging technology - see the section About Me.
Now the entire country has to do it, as a matter of urgency.