“If I had said: ‘don't worry, it's all going to be fine, and business is going to be great,’ no one would have believed me,” says ICAEW member Shru Morris, CEO of law firm Napthens LLP. Being a trusted leader meant showing authenticity when navigating the unknown, and it was vital that everyone was in the trenches together.
“This is how trust is built,” she says. “But I also said to my teams: ‘we will do everything we can to keep you safe, to keep the wheels turning in terms of our business, but we may get some things wrong along the way because we've never been through this situation before’.”
Similarly, the external message to clients was about togetherness and always remembering how Napthens wants to be remembered as a firm when the situation levels out. But Morris is at pains to point out that external messaging went beyond the client base to other business leaders, asking how they found the situation, how they coped with furlough, and finding out who else they were talking to by way of information sharing.
“Sometimes you need a safe environment in which to discuss things that leaders perhaps can't discuss with anybody else,” says Morris, who is speaking on a panel session examining trust in business at ICAEW Virtually Live 2021.
Morris points out that most practices and business are not used to such high levels of unpredictability in their numbers, they have rarely seen a situation in which a solid strategy is just not enough to prevail, and in which acceptance of external forces is part of staying strong.
Forward planning looks much more like three months than five years at present, but it also involves lots of communication. “Everybody needs to get involved in talking to clients. We could not stop talking because that is the basic mantra of business,” she says. “But being honest was the best thing we could do. It builds trust.” Pandemic has also brought out the human side of doing business. “Empathy is such an important part of leadership,” she says.
Turning to chartered accountancy, Morris points out that the profession has always looked forward, even when it is hard to look forward very far. “Forecasting has been absolutely key to the last 12 months,” she says. And much of that information has been shared across her organisation – something that might not have been necessary previously.
“We needed to do that because everybody wanted to understand the situation,” she says. Part of the reason for this enhanced information sharing was to deliver reassurance but it was also about transparency and trust. “This provided comfort that this business is being run well,” she says, “and created a narrative around the numbers. It is so important to bring the numbers to life in this environment.”
Napthens operates largely in the SME market – a sector that has relied heavily on its trusted advisers in recent months. “We were there for them at all hours of the day,” she says. “That is what helped get clients through the difficult situations they found themselves in.”
But when businesses did start to find their way through the negativity and perhaps needed a different licence to operate in changed circumstances, or there was advice needed on a shift in business model, the trust in Napthens was already in place because the law firm had been holding its clients’ hands from the start.
“And they knew we were there for them without them feeling that the clock was ticking. In many cases, their businesses had largely been shut down, but we were still on hand,” she says. “Long-term relationships with clients are going to give our practice sustainability.”
Now, at the top of Morris’s agenda is: how do businesses come together to get the Northwest back on its feet? “We're in it together,” she says, “so what is the next phase for this whole business community?”
For her, it is all about communicating with business leaders who have been at the coalface with her and remaining involved in sector-specific groups into the future. It is all about continuing to share experiences and learn from what has happened. And it is about plugging skills gaps. Morris can understand caution around recruitment and training given the stresses on businesses, but a long-term view must prevail – skills and productivity are key to that. “We've actually maintained our training,” she says. “You've got to create a legacy for the future.”