Get prepared for 2021: The key challenges and how to tackle them

We asked 10 leaders to identify the key governance and risk management challenges set to strike in 2021 – and their top tip for tackling these. 

From tearing down silos, to ensuring your leadership is purposeful, to not letting your day be ruled by digital - we received plenty of strong, practical feedback 

And after a difficult year, placing a focus on well-being and resilience also shone through strongly as a priority for several of our respondents 

Each of the below leaders will feature at our virtual National Conference on 7 and 8 December. 

So as the new year rapidly approaches, here’s your governance and risk management survival guide to help tackle 2021. 

Break down the silos 

Singtel & Optus Vice President Group Sustainability, Andrew Buay: 

The events of the past year have demonstrated that corporate risks cannot be managed on a silo basis given how the drivers and impact are often multi-faceted. The climatic and pandemic events Australia faced impacted business, community and individual resilience. The economic, physical and mental well-being in the workforce and local communities are all interdependent as are the economic repercussions.  

Top tip: A systematic, integrated and interdependent approach is needed involving collaboration between diverse stakeholders, if we are to adapt and build sustainable resilience to these issues. 
Andrew will chair the plenary panel ‘Why ESG remains a priority in conversations on the corporation’.  

Have a community mindset 

Business Council of Australia President, Tim Reed: 

Top of mind of governance issues going into 2021 will continue to be community relations and license to operate. Society’s expectations of business continue to evolve. Two years’ ago ASIC wrote that company culture needed to be more focussed on what “should” be done, not what “could” be done. After a year of disasters and a global pandemic, we’re seeing the community to be far more vocal and pro-active in their expectations of companies.  

Top tip: Those that focus on serving local communities by embedding themselves in those communities will be well positioned to benefit as recovery kicks in. 
Tim will be part of the Boardroom Q & A plenary panel. 

Get your work house - and personal house - in order 

Governance Institute of Australia CEO, Megan Motto FGIA: 

A key challenge next year will be resilience. In 2021 the only thing we can be sure about is we are not sure what will happen. We will need to be ready to be adaptive and focussed on opportunity as well as risk.  

Top tip: Get your house in order! Use the summer break to get both your “work house” (risk registers, key plans, budgets etc) in place, as well as your “personal house” (nurture your mind, relationships and health so that you are in the right head space to lead effectively). 
Megan will chair the ‘Young Leaders’ panel. 

Use digital to your advantage - not your detriment 

CSIRO’s Data61 Director, Professor Jon Whittle: 

Science and technology are going to be more important than ever in helping the country to recover from the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. COVID has accelerated digital transformation by five to 10 years, and this trend is likely to continue as businesses realise what is now possible with digital and look to tighten expenditure, with digital as a key enabler. But technology moves faster than governance and regulatory frameworksOrganisations need to take a responsible approach to digital, and properly think through what could go wrong as well as go right. A critical part of this is to ensure that boards are educated - beyond just buzzwords - on what technologies like AI and automation can and cannot do, and what risks they may bring. 

We've seen a rapid digital transformation with the move to virtual working from home en masse. It's frankly amazing that this has been possible so quickly and with relatively few issues. However, Zoom fatigue is a real thing. We've found ourselves trapped in back-to-back virtual meetings. To build resilience for 2021, we need to take responsibility - both as organisations and individuals - to change how we work and use digital to our advantage not to our detriment.  

Top tips: Mix up technologies (sometimes Zoom, sometimes phone), multi-task where you can (go for a run while listening to a seminar), and don't have meetings for the sake of it (say no where you can, or find alternate methods not always defaulting to a Zoom meeting with lots of people). 
Jon will be a part of the plenary fireside chat ‘Technology — regulation, governance and innovation’. 

Bring objectives and actions into alignment  

Holding Redlich General Counsel, Lyn Nicholson FGIA FCG: 

Maintaining ongoing alignment of stated objectives and actions in organisations will continue to be the biggest challenge.  

Top tip: Be clear and transparent in communicating what it is the organisation is doing, and then ensuring that your processes are in fact doing what you say they are, throughout all levels of organisational complexity.   

Look at examples of recent failed attempts to maintain this, such as “fees for no services” supported by employee “sales incentives”. There are many other examples. The challenge for governance is to operate effectively at a broad overview level, while also making sure that down in the weeds of the organisation things are not going astray. 
Lyn will chair the Risk Concurrent 3B ‘Technology and Information’. 

Learn from 2020 for a better year ahead 

ANZ Company Secretary, Simon Pordage FGIA FCG 

Top of mind for me for 2021 is to come back refreshed and firing out of the blocks and seek to ensure we embed the positive learnings of 2020. We’ve all had to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity and rely on and trust new technologies and operating rhythms. 

Top tip: My goal is to keep that attitude and use it to (a) drive positive long-term improvements in how we govern ourselves and (b) spark even more ideas about how we can do things differently and better, helping our organisation and the people within it make the best decisions they can. 
Simon will chair the Leadership and Governance Concurrent 1A ‘The influential leader – leading calmly through the storm’. 

Put purposeful leadership in the spotlight 

AMP Capital Funds Management Chairman and Diversity Council of Australia Deputy Chair, Ming Long AM: 

COVID-19 has presented leaders with an opportunity to show our true character. We have all seen the risks where wealth has not been evenly shared in society, where we have left marginalised groups behind. 

Top tip: We will be judged by history and by generations to come. So, ask yourselves the questions - Do we build back better with courage, vision and sustainable business models ensuring we are a more inclusive society What is the purpose of our leadership? What will be our legacy? 
Ming will be part of the Boardroom Q & A plenary panel. 

Inspire your talented, innovative team 

MTPConnect Chairman, Sue MacLeman FTSE: 

Right now, a leadership challenge that is top of mind for me in 2021 is about making sure we have the right vision and strategy to drive growth in a new post-pandemic normal. As a leader you cannot realise a vision alone and need to inspire a team to go on a journey with you that has purpose and meaning. It takes a talented team that can work together and collaborate more broadly. Leadership is being able to inspire others to harness their unique gifts and strengths to innovate and find creative solutions and inviting others to make your vision their own.  

Top tip: Surround yourself with the best team of talented people who are passionate about what they do, who are inspired by the big picture and enjoy working in an innovative culture where individuals have the freedom to create their best work and take pride in their efforts.  

It’s been a year that no one could predict with global health, climate change and political challenges. My top tip for resilience is to be persistent and push through difficulties and setbacks and continuously learn and refine. You need a fine balance to remain agile enough to pivot and make tactical course corrections but persist with your overarching strategic goals. Take time to keep the team safe and ensure the strategy is sound. Make sure you have a trusted sounding board, a confidante, a mentor, to check-in with if you find yourself wavering from your path at any time. 
Sue will be part of the Leadership and Governance Concurrent 2A: Forward-looking boards. 

Be a role model in this time of change 

Trust Futurist, Philipp Kristian-Diekhoner: 

With turbulence and unexpected change guiding this extraordinary beginning of the new decade, leaders everywhere are being put in touch more than ever with their calling as role models. Global business is facing a new horizon illuminated by purpose-driven conduct driving a culture of doing the right thing, because it matters.  

Top tipIt’s time for change towards a more frictionless, caring and humane status quo. Reimagining governance is at the heart of it, making this one of the most important events of its time. 
Philipp will be part of the Leadership and Governance Concurrent 1A ‘The influential leader – leading calmly through the storm’. 

Understand stakeholder expectations and communications 

National Foundation for Australia China Relations ChairPru Bennett: 

In 2021, boards will be focused on a sustainable recovery with climate change, human capital management, and cybersecurity top of the agenda.  

Top tipA deep understanding of stakeholder expectations will be necessary, as will sound communications. Boards will also need to ensure they have the right skill mix so that they can be resilient, flexible, and quickly adapt to both opportunities and risks. 
Pru will be part of the plenary fireside chat ‘The new world order’. 

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