Decision-making at the boardroom level is probably the biggest factor in whether an organisation succeeds, stands still, or goes backwards. It is of course that responsibility which makes the top jobs so rewarding, but you don’t have to be the owner of a minicab firm who has seen profits crash as a result of Uber coming to town, to appreciate that we live in volatile times. Making the right call means remaining sensitive to what’s actually going on out there.
Expect the unexpected is in danger of becoming the maxim of our times. So much so that the acronym VUCA has already turned up in a million PowerPoint presentations in the last 18 months. This is us, the business community, trying to see the wider world as it increasingly is - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. We have a need to rationalise significant events that we didn’t really see coming – with a roll call that currently includes Brexit, President Trump, and, of late, a hung Parliament.
In my experience it is not actually fear of change that keeps many entrepreneurs and CEOs awake at night. It’s the reverse: they worry about stagnation. In all things, entrepreneurs look for innovation and opportunity. Change is in their mind-set along with a willingness to challenge assumptions.
Does the strategy still serve the business plan? Do we have enough information to make the best choice? Has enough time been taken to reach a view? Do we understand the risk? What are instinct and experience telling us?
The standard disclaimer here is that business leaders are not super humans, immune from mistakes, missing things, or unwelcome surprises. Every decision is made with a certain amount of uncertainty, and the right call can be degraded by unforeseen factors.
In the last year we have seen spectacular examples of VUCA. In what was poised to be the biggest pharmaceuticals merger ever, Pfizer, the company responsible for Viagra, was to join forces with Botox-maker Allergan in a deal worth $160bn (£114bn). Pfizer was seeking to escape the US’s comparatively high corporate tax rate by shifting its address to low-tax Ireland, where Allergan is domiciled. The deal was dead with 48 hours of the US Treasury announcing it was to tighten up its corporate tax laws to deter mergers and acquisitions activity motivated by the desire to pay less tax. The decision to terminate what was the largest tax inversion deal in history sent shockwaves around the corporate world - and left Pfizer with a $150m bill to cover Allergan’s deal-related expenses.
Much less spectacular, but nevertheless significant changes, regularly appear from 11 Downing Street. Last year the Chancellor dealt properties companies and private landlords a blow after abandoning plans to exempt 'significant investors' from more duty. It meant that anyone purchasing an additional property will have to pay an extra 3 per cent stamp duty land tax. This removed the possibility of buy-to-let investors clubbing together to buy multiple residential properties through a company to avoid the extra tax and added to the costs of companies investing in residential property.
So directors have to expect the unexpected. I think we all know that the chances of the right calls being made are improved by having quality in the decision-making process. Proper interrogation and reflection on the issues are fundamental. To that end, one potentially easy win is to ensure there is diversity in the top jobs.
Grant Thornton’s international network has surveyed the role of women in business for over a decade and this year we explored how men and women see risk and opportunity in different ways. Attitudes to risk inform how people approach big decisions. We wanted to look at some of the stereotypes of men v. women in this respect.
We asked 5,500 male and female business leaders around the world to indicate on a scale of 1–5 the amount of risk posed by different aspects of organisational and commercial life. The survey found that economic change tops the list for both sexes. This is followed by competitor activity, political change and legal/regulatory change. Media activity, social change, technological change and environmental change are seen as areas of lower risk.
For context, the work also looked at the existing academic literature. It tends to paint a picture where women are more pessimistic about relative gains than men. They are also said to experience emotion more intensely. Together these factors are believed to dampen women’s propensity for risky choices. The only domain in which they are perceived to show greater risk-taking tendencies is regarding social risk, where higher social sensitivity encourages feelings of empathy and honesty in women. In general, men are considered to be more competitive, risk-loving and confident.
Given that women are perceived to be less likely to engage in risky behaviour, we expected our findings to show that women see more risk than men. And yet our survey showed the reverse. In eight out of ten categories, men see higher risk than women. The exceptions are security and, to a lesser extent, competitor activity.
In my view the work illustrates that, despite the common perception that women are more risk averse than men, it should not be a matter of a black and white analysis. A more realistic way of looking at this is to characterise men and women as equally good at managing risk in different ways – a diverse board can only benefit by having a more balanced attitude to risk.
Risk aware, diligent, detail-driven – these were some of the preferred terms for the qualities that women bring among the interviews conducted around the world as part of the survey. One interviewee commented that “women tend to operate more in the grey than their male counterparts”. By this she means that women do not rush to label a situation as a risk. They consider context and nuance to fully understand the implications first.
There’s a lot more in the report. Have a look and see what you think.