Here are a top Tech CEO’s three keys to building a better normal after COVID-19

02 Jun 2020

Here are a top Tech CEO’s three keys to building a better normal after COVID-19

As businesses reset after lock-down, Mike Ettling, Chief Executive of the global software firm Unit4, reflects on his purpose and optimism for the very different world now emerging.

Mike Ettling

Mike Drew, Partner and Global Head of the Odgers Berndtson Executive Search’s Global Technology Practice continues his questions in a series of interviews.

Mike: During this period, when so many frontline workers are literally putting their lives on the line for us, purpose becomes so important for employees, whatever sector you're in. How have you tried to develop a greater sense of purpose at Unit4?

I've been on record many times saying that getting the purpose right is about 75% of leadership.

Great companies and great leaders are really good at establishing purpose and I think this is a fundamental thing, crisis or no crisis.

We established our purpose and really made it part of our fabric when we did the brand relaunch, our strapline ‘In Business for People’ reflects this. That purpose really drives through into how we treat our people and striving to build an extraordinary experience.

If we are in business for people, we need to look after our people first and everything else will follow. We support a lot of businesses like education, like not-for-profits, who are very active and involved in what's happening with the crisis.

We made a conscious decision when we got into this that everyone who's on social media will focus on highlighting the great things our customers are doing. That also rallied our people around our purpose. If you have a strong purpose, as I believe we do, it makes a crisis significantly easier to deal with.

Mike: The almost overnight switch to working remotely has surely proved the business case to even the most skeptical for modernizing the workplace. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to embrace a new way of working after lockdown?

I think you’ve got to think about it as creating a better way of working because, yes this is a global health crisis causing a lot of mortality and it's been challenging, but there are also positive things to come out of this. Let’s consider the carbon footprint or family reconnection.

I think the challenge we all have as leaders is to figure out what is a viable and practical way to blend home working now with office space locations.

I would encourage people to have open minds, to encourage leaders to talk to their people. Your people know what they want to do, they have a sense for it.

We’re in the midst right now of a survey of every single person. We’ve dropped the language of ‘Return to Work,’ we are talking about a ‘Better Normal’. That immediately gets people thinking about the good things coming out of this and blending all of that to create a better normal going forward.

I think there's an opportunity, I'm an optimistic person by nature, the solution is not rocket science, it's out there within your people already.


Watch a ten-minute video of this ‘CEO leading through the lockdown’ interview with Mike Ettling, Chief Executive of global software firm Unit4.

Mike: Twitter is moving to an entirely remote workforce, quite an extreme move for them, but obviously there are very valid business reasons for doing so. This will, of course, affect culture. Do you think there should be a more balanced approach?

We concluded that because of the complexity of returning to physical locations, including the diversity of legislation in so many countries, that it's a mathematical problem too hard to solve. The default needs to be work from home. But I don't think it's exclusively that. We hope to see a balance.

Interestingly, just before this broke, we hired an executive to lead workplace experience, because I see it as part of the employee experience, not just bricks and mortar.

It’s nice to hear that now there's a big focus on what do we need for workplace experience because it will be different.

But I do believe we still need the bricks and mortar, to have the connection and to bring customers in to have meetings when you need them. All told, it's going to be very different to what we needed, and the footprint that we needed, six months ago.

Mike: Let’s change tack for a moment. Do you think the digital transformation will now accelerate due to the importance and reliance that we are now placing on technology? And does this mean the CIO will hold an even more strategic position in the C-suite than before?

You know there's a cartoon circulating about who successfully drove the digital transformation in your company: CEO, CFO, CIO or COVID-19? And I absolutely believe that this is going to accelerate digital transformation. We are seeing this in how our customers are engaging with us.  Some verticals got caught very flat-footed by this, not ready and not enabled for it. We’ve seen other verticals, like the tech industry and professional services, just slip into this overnight with very little disruption.

Despite the UK being in the EU and GDPR compliant, if we were hosting a data centre, data residency was a reason not to go to the cloud. We've seen that shift. We have customers who previously said they couldn’t move to the cloud without a data centre in their country, moving to the cloud and a data centre that is in the EU.

Resilience and security now trump data residency.

I think we’ll see acceleration and shift to digitising back-office systems. We've seen some industries like education go into a bit of a pause mode because they are scrambling to sort out basic education delivery within a system driven by physical location. But I believe if we look forward to six months’ time, that industry is going to focus very heavily on digitising the whole value chain all the way through to the back office.

So yes, I think COVID is going to be the biggest driver of digital acceleration in 2020 and beyond. And, without doubt, the CIO is going to be very much part of the strategic team to make that happen.

Mike: A large part of your customer base includes public sector, education, not-for-profit organisations all of which are under significant pressure during this crisis. How has that impacted Unit4?

I would say we are a services-based business, and that's quite a broad category, because it's got professional services, it's got lawyers, construction, architects, engineers, advertising agencies...

That's the sector which has largely flipped the switch to remote working quite easily, consultants are continuing to consult on Zoom, and we've seen it in our own professional services where we've had probably less than 10 projects go into pause mode.

Globally, we can learn, we can do the projects and we can deploy software all remotely.

Local government has been impacted differently on a country-by-country basis. Some are spending more, using spending as a way to channel money into the economy and to bolster the economy.

Alternatively, another country is in freeze mode and has stopped spending at local government level.

We thought NFP would be hit hard, but we've actually seen the reverse. Many of our NFP clients have seen increased donations and grants and are able to continue doing what they need to do.

I would say in education, tertiary education has probably been the hardest hit for the reasons I said earlier. Many of them didn't have Microsoft Teams or equivalent. They are rapidly trying to catch up and just get the functional delivery of education work.

Mike: Finally, I’m curious to know, reflecting on what you've learned, and what you continue to learn, any advice to other leaders facing COVID-19 challenges?

Focus on your people, now is the time to get really close to people in your business through all channels, by all means.

Secondly, recognise that despite best-laid plans, things probably won't turn out that way. So be prepared to be agile and tear up plans and start again.

Lastly, customers will be less tolerant of mistakes in a recession, so now is the time to improve quality and get closer to customers.

People, agility and customers in that order. And the rest should take care of itself.

Mike: Wonderful. It's been fascinating, and on behalf of Odgers Berndtson, thank you for taking the time to speak to us and for sharing your optimism and insight.