As Covid-19 shifted technology awareness and adoption up a gear, so has the nature of leadership been elevated, according to Zen CEO Paul Stobart, who believes that modern, post-Covid captaincy demands a new approach.
If any lesson is learned from Covid-19 it is that people should never be under prioritised. “Engagement of people has always been the biggest driver of business success,” stated Stobart. “And during lockdown it was the engagement, drive and the determination of our people that enabled us to navigate the pandemic successfully. What I also learned was the degree to which sustained lockdown can put pressure on people. As a result, we placed more emphasis on doing what we could to look after the mental health and wellbeing of our people.”
The channel’s CEOs and business leaders today, perhaps, face many more challenges and opportunities than ever before, potentially changing the nature of traditional leadership. “Having effective and inspirational leadership in place is key to ensuring that people within an organisation remain engaged and aligned,” added Stobart. “Modern, post-Covid leadership demands a different approach. The modern leader leads with authenticity and empathy, appreciates the efforts of others, inspires teams of people to work collaboratively and effectively to a common purpose, communicates effectively using the power of story telling to give meaning to everyone in the business, listens to others, asks great questions, is curious, and recognises that the CEO’s role is to serve the organisation.”
Following the pandemic, Stobart feels better equipped to push himself and his team to the next level. “We are ready! We are more resilient, more focused, more discerning and more disciplined,” he enthused. “There is no shortage of market opportunity and to take advantage we need our people fully engaged with a passion to serve a new cadre of far more demanding customers to the best of our ability. We’re also talking more, and with increased transparency around topics such as mental health and wellbeing.”
For many business leaders the pandemic validated their thinking and direction. Conversely, it may have prompted some to look at challenges and opportunities from a new angle. But Stobart’s business philosophy ‘hasn’t changed one iota’. “I truly believe that inspired and well led people that are fully engaged will deliver a superior customer experience and that in turn will deliver sustained financial over-performance,” he added. “It has always been people, customer, performance, in that order – and that rings true both in a pre and post-pandemic world.”
Having effective and inspirational leadership in place is key to ensuring that people within an organisation remain engaged and aligned
Yet the pandemic produced a flex in the nature of employee expectations, a change that aligns perfectly with Stobart’s approach. “Employees have changed,” he added. “People will no longer accept the status quo. They’re after a very different employee experience and want to work for a business with a real purpose that takes its responsibilities to all stakeholders, including the community and the environment, seriously. They desire more flexibility, better benefits and a share in the success of the organisation. They will hold their leaders to account for fulfilling their environmental, societal and governance responsibilities.”
Not surprisingly, Stobart’s current priority is to place increased focus on Zen’s people agenda. The company is introducing new benefits, more learning opportunities and investing in Diversity and Inclusion through the work of its Women in Tech, BAME, Pride and Faith groups. Zen has also increased its focus on the sustainability agenda, and is now a certified B Corporation on a path to net zero, investing in energy and carbon emission reduction projects including the installation of solar panels at its Rochdale headquarters.
“Climate change is no longer simply a political issue,” added Stobart. “It has become an issue for businesses and consumers. Business clients request as standard any information we have regarding our climate change ambitions. Consumers want to know not just that we are carbon neutral but what initiatives we have in place to get to net zero. When it comes to sustainability we have to be informed and demonstrate that we’re not just empathetic, but that we’re actively engaged and have a real plan.”
In terms of technology, Zen is embarking on the next phase of its network upgrade programme, including the unbundling of a further 250 exchanges to take its estate to 700 exchanges. Once complete Zen will be able to take 80 per cent of all ultrafast orders on its own network. “One of the biggest changes has been the speed with which the full fibre roll out has gathered pace,” observed Stobart. “Over the next three or four years the entire landscape will change, with millions of consumers and thousands of businesses migrating to new technology.
“To keep ahead of this wave of new technology businesses need to act with speed, creativity and ingenuity. It also follows that business success will be derived from having the best, most engaged, innovative, and technically expert people wholly focused on providing customers with a great experience. Our focus on the people and customer agendas has never been more pronounced. We are improving our systems and our portfolio of digital assets to give our people better tools to look after customers, and creating tiered propositions that take into account the new world order and deliver enhanced value.”
When it comes to sustainability we have to be informed and demonstrate that we’re not just empathetic, but actively engaged with a real plan
It is clear to see that the root to success lies in strength – strength of purpose, people and propositions – all of which ensured Zen experienced double digit growth throughout the pandemic. “We were lucky to be in a sector that turned out to be a fundamental enabler to home working,” added Stobart. “The pandemic has been terrible for humanity in so many ways, but one silver lining is the leap forward that we have seen in digital transformation. IT transformation is now at the top of the board agenda for many businesses, and this brings significant opportunities for the wider IT community.”
On the flips side, Stobart identified inflation as the biggest threat facing the channel. “I am old enough to remember what it’s like to live and trade in an inflationary environment, whereas many people today have never experienced it,” he explained. “In our industry, costs of connectivity are increasing as infrastructure players seek a return on the colossal cost of full fibre roll out. This cost-push inflation is already feeding through to prices in broadband markets and this trend is set to continue.
“In an inflationary world it’s easy to become over reliant on price as a way to drive revenue growth. But this is not the right way to think. It’s the creativity of your propositions, the integrity of your brand and the differentiated service provided by your people that will deliver sustained success.”