Collaboration between and within companies has played a crucial role in business during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Companies are thriving, not just surviving, based on an eagerness to embrace partnerships that help enable meaningful, long-term, successful change. And while it is the CEO’s responsibility to both lead and enact change from the top, partnerships and ecosystem-play have become an essential element in the decision-making process. This means that boards of all kinds—internal and external, advisory and supervisory—have assumed more responsibility. And through it all, Dr. Dipl.-Ing. Eberhard Veit has had a front row seat to observing how that willingness to collaborate, or lack thereof, directly impacts progress.
As a supervisory board member for some of the leading German manufacturers, Dr. Veit helps companies strategize while overseeing managerial board decisions. In 2020, he witnessed an unprecedented eagerness within these and other companies to enact change and embark on enhanced digital transformations. Yet, he also observed many other companies fail to grasp the sense of accelerated urgency to implement change that the crisis brought about. Those companies chose instead to bank on simply improving the old, rather than invest in the new.
"Board members can no longer just say 'yes or no' to existing initiatives. Instead, they must be vigilant drivers of change and act in more entrepreneurial ways."
— DR. EBERHARD VEIT, Managing Partner of Supervisory Board Office 4.0-veIT
Accenture: Have you ever experienced a more challenging and complex time as a board member than over the last twelve months?
Dr. Eberhard Veit: No, because today’s crisis is not just three-dimensional; it is impacting business across four dimensions. We have pressure on all sides: first from the economic crisis; second, from globalization and new markets; third, from the COVID-19 crisis; and fourth, from company culture and people’s resistance to change. Today, the changes underway—regarding how technology impacts business, how the world should work, and how we think about people—are the most significant we have seen in a very long time. Now is the time to respond, with investments in radical technological changes and in educating and upskilling the workforce. Companies that are already taking action in these areas are laying the foundations for post-COVID growth; they have proven themselves to be more resilient to change and unwaveringly focused on building a better future.
As a board member, I devote most of my time to thinking about how we can enact positive change and adapt to these four-dimensional challenges, while I myself adapt to them. Now, instead of flying to meetings, I can use that time gained to collaborate more with companies via video conferences. We are all living through these changes, and businesses need to grasp this reality fast. The speed with which businesses must tackle these changes is only possible if they find a good cadence, educate people, and push progress and flexibility in much shorter cycles. As a result, board members can no longer just say “yes” or “no” to existing initiatives. They must instead be vigilant drivers of change and act in more entrepreneurial ways.
A: Has the nature of board work changed because of COVID-19?
Dr. EV: COVID-19 has had an impact on every aspect of business, and the decisions companies make today will have repercussions for decades. The stakes are clearly much higher than pre-COVID, and there is a need for more oversight in the decision-making process, and more post-COVID scenario planning. As a result, being on a board right now is frankly much more exhausting and difficult because we must take responsibility for processes and companies at a global level. This is a task that feels bigger and riskier in this crisis, but it is also rich in bigger opportunities. In a crisis like this, you need board members who can help shape change. This is particularly true for companies that are currently undergoing transformational change. Their boards are very active and go into the details to help shape the transformations. So, board members need to be people who have special skills, but also who understand and embody entrepreneurship. They should be people who are culturally sensitive, see eye to eye with the CEO, and act as their sparring partners.
A: COVID-19 has impacted industrial companies in all kinds of ways. What has been surprising to you?
Dr. EV: What I find surprising is how binary the responses to the crisis have been. Companies either complain all day long, or they see the crisis as a springboard for opportunity. Those companies that adopted a more positive mindset bounced back quickly from a state of shock into an action-oriented mindset. This will prove essential to long-term survival. These companies are motivated to keep moving towards change, even though they may not see results from their efforts quickly, due to macroeconomic conditions. It’s also been surprising to see how some companies have gained quite a lot more market share and had much better economic success than expected in the middle of 2020.