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A board’s eye view: Organizational resilience

Anne Marie O’Donovan, chair of Aviva Canada and CMA Investco Inc., shares her views on trends and issues facing companies and their boards today, along with how to develop resilience and create supportive cultures.

Anne Marie O’Donovan has always loved working on boards. “You get to wrap your arms around a company and add a lot of value,” she says. This sentiment is perhaps even more true during the pandemic.

O’Donovan chairs multiple boards, including at property and casualty insurance company Aviva Canada and Investco Inc., the investment arm of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA). She also serves on the board of directors of Canadian book retailer Indigo and Cadillac Fairview, which invests in, owns, and manages commercial real estate.

Over the last 18 months, O’Donovan has seen, firsthand, how companies across industries have responded to the COVID-19 crisis. We had the opportunity to speak with her about the role that boards of directors have played in pandemic responses. She explained the importance of resilience and how boards must be more forward-thinking than ever before.

The highlights of this interview are included below.

Deloitte: Given the many boards you serve on, you’ve likely seen companies handle the pandemic in different ways. What are some lessons you’ve learned?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: One of the biggest takeaways is how critical the supply chain is and the importance of a diversified supplier network. Companies realized just how important it is to have a robust network of suppliers and the need for speed and connectivity—among suppliers, employees, and customers. That became an absolute priority.

Organizations that had a more intense focus on their customers were also in a better position to succeed. When the pandemic hit, it became incredibly important to continue digitally reaching customers.

Speed and agility continue to be so important. Everything has just sped up, so companies also need to identify partners who can shorten their delivery timelines.

Deloitte: What were the big differences between the readiness of different organizations?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: Some had already developed the internal infrastructure needed to maintain connectivity with their staff. Some were much further along on their digital journey. Those that had these two things in place could react more quickly to what was happening.

Another differentiator was an investment in people. Also, the companies that had ample liquidity were better able to pivot and double down on the investments needed in critical areas.

Ultimately, companies with cultures and leadership styles that were organizationally adaptable and resilient were better prepared and positioned. 

Deloitte: Tell us more about the board’s role—what happened in the months following the onset of the pandemic?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: In the early weeks of the pandemic, the frequency of meetings and communications between management and the board increased dramatically. Rather than meeting bi-monthly or quarterly, meetings were occurring weekly.

It was clear that things weren’t going to be perfect. As board members, we had to manage and encourage the trade-off between speed of information and complete accuracy to support management and provide direction.

A big part of our role as board members was around providing support. Organizational resilience is like individual resilience. If you want someone to be resilient, pivot, and manage through significant change, you need to support them. People can go to a dark place and feel defeated; it’s no different for organizations. So one of the board’s key jobs is to support management. And for critical initiatives, we need to make sure the resourcing, financing, and talent are in place to be able to deliver on a new direction.

Deloitte: What were some of the issues you and the boards you sit on had to think about?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: Liquidity was one. Do we have the money we need to get us through the next several months or even years? This was a question most companies were asking themselves. It was also important to ask, how bad can things get? What do we need, and what are our options to go and get those things?

But cash wasn’t the only thing. Another focus has been on scenario modelling. For instance, everybody’s seeing just how much business is being done online now. What does that mean when we come out of the pandemic? What will the new normal be, and is the company prepared for that?

So, it’s also important to have discussions around what’s next. How are we going to differentiate? And what are the priorities we must deliver on? What are the resources needed to get there? Strategy discussions are no longer annual ones where you set a five-year strategic plan. These conversations need to happen every quarter now.

Deloitte: What are some of the trends you’ve seen accelerate? Are they now part of the strategic conversation?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: Consumer behaviors and the consumer comfort level with doing business online, particularly across older demographics, have shifted. Whether that’s shopping for goods or insurance, customer behavior has changed.

It’s critical to meet the customer where they’re at, so that’s significant. Customers are also looking for experiences—something that’s accelerated. So it’s key to identify touchpoints with the customer and know how you’re developing that relationship with them.

Addressing climate change and the environment is one trend that’s still on the periphery, but it’s going to explode in a big way. I’m talking not only about how that’s going to continue changing consumer behavior, but also about how it will force companies to do business differently.

Deloitte: And what about examining individual employee needs; has that become a larger focus?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: That’s definitely a trend. There’s a much greater awareness around two important things. First, that the office is incredibly important for relationship building, culture reinforcing, and training/development. Second, though, there’s the awareness that we can do an awful lot from home—and in doing so, be super-productive, super-effective, and maintain really good communication. We can invite many more people into our meeting because nobody has to travel to it.

But there is a rethinking around how to optimize both areas. What works will differ by company—even by teams within a company. The way we did it might not be the only way to do it going forward. But you also can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Companies can keep and improve on processes that have served them well, since there is great value in bringing people together.

Deloitte: What areas are you, as a board member, prioritizing to help the companies you work with remain resilient?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: There’s a big focus on digital transformation and data, how we’re getting it, and how we’re using it. Data is absolutely recognized as a key enabler in making effective decisions and differentiating your business and your service from others.

There is also a heightened focus on talent. It doesn’t mean a wholesale change, but it’s important to ask yourself, do we have the right people around the table to take us forward? You must be aware of the culture that you’re operating in, and whether the culture is supportive.

Deloitte: What are some key actions boards and executives can take to help organizations think through transformation and withstand future challenges?

Anne Marie O’Donovan: The big thing is helping management keep their heads up and look forward. It’s critical that we, as board members, keep the focus on what’s next. What are the trends? Where are we going? How are we going to position ourselves? What do we need to invest in? It’s now about tomorrow.

You also have to have discussions around how people are doing day-to-day. How are people coping and surviving? Finding these answers doesn’t come just through employee opinion surveys, although that’s a way to help gauge what morale is. But also look at what support the company provides to everyone. That ranges from executives down to the person who’s on the shop floor.

We all have more work to do. There’s no question about that. If we’re going to withstand challenges in the future, at an appropriate time, we will need to look at the lessons we’ve all learned from the pandemic.