UNO + 1 Interview of Antonio Garamendi by José Antonio Llorente
The COVID-19 pandemic has by now affected our day-to-day for many months, and Antonio, you are surely aware of the unprecedented difficulties facing today’s business leaders as a result. How would you rate your performance in the face of this adversity? Are you successfully meeting society’s demands, in your own opinion?
It’s my sincere belief that this crisis has brought out the best in all of us, but at the same time, it has pushed companies’ societal and economic roles to the forefront of global discussion.
On an individual level, companies are doing their utmost to preserve business and jobs, and on a grander scale, a social dialogue is developing between organizations of all sizes. The reality is that business leaders have reinforced their already formidable place as society’s driving economic force.
This became obvious this past June during our Spanish Confederation of Business Organizations (CEOE, for the Spanish acronym) Summit. Our main message was that companies do aid in recovery efforts, in some cases forming the cornerstone of that recovery. Our ultimate goal is the common good. If things go well for us, things go well for everybody, and we prioritize thusly.
In that sense, I believe business leaders are prepared to stand wherever circumstances require. When we look back on this hardship, we’ll be proud to say we stood with society and upheld our commitments when we were needed most.
As a business leader, I’m sure you’ve already learned from all that we’ve faced thus far. Can you tell us what lessons have come from the pandemic?
I’ve learned many important lessons, because as I said, we are being pushed front and center. We must learn from everything we do, whether it works out or not.
Some of these lessons are obvious: The role of leadership plays a fundamental role in times of crisis and flux, such as now. This role is a transformative one, and one that must remain people-focused. Leaders should know how to emotionally rally their communities, drive successful action and adapt to societal needs.
A perfect example of this are the temporary lay-off plans we saw earlier this year. Business leaders and trade unions came to an agreement before entering into a dialogue with the government.
This agreement was reached through engaged discussion, and the result of this collaboration was a safety net for companies and jobs. This will hopefully allow organizations to maintain normalcy as much as possible through the end of the pandemic.
Also of note is the importance of leaders’ active participation. At the peak of the pandemic, we asked for large-scale testing and the ability to conduct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests at companies. Now, this testing is part of our day-to-day. Companies are able to manage health and safety systems, and some are even able to execute track-and-trace protocols.
But for me, the biggest lesson was about dedication to society. Business leadership transcends bottom lines, and in that vein, our companies have displayed exemplary solidarity in recent months. Many companies have transformed their production chains to create or distribute healthcare equipment, for example. These companies have successfully met society’s needs by putting their business values into practice.
Following the emergence of COVID-19, we have seen a resurgence of concerns over a potential leadership crisis, with many pointing to an accelerated need for new leadership models. Do you share these concerns?
Absolutely. Just as authority is different from legal power, management is different from responsibility – and from collaboration-based leadership. In other words, traditional hierarchical leadership no longer has a place in this world. Today, people are not afraid to make their voices heard, and contemporary leaders must know how to channel those voices. Under modern management models, active participation is essential. Leaders must take on the role of an inspiring figure, capable of achieving an ideal bottom-up result. Company structures, organizational charts, and organizational methodologies have doubtless changed. It follows logically that we must adapt how we lead.
LLYC recently published a report attempting to anticipate the shape of future leadership. You have a lot of experience, and your position as leader of Spain’s main business association lends you some authority on the matter. What advice would you offer to young up -and-coming leaders?
I don’t think offering advice on this subject is my place, because I truly believe that future generations themselves are the ones who should be teaching us. They only just finished surviving the 2008 economic crisis, and now all this.
But putting that aside, I can still speak as founder of the young entrepreneurs’ association in the Basque Country. I believe that in the near future, passion and optimism will be paramount. Leaders must play the role of facilitator and strive for consensus, highlighting needs and important aspects of their own operations as well as those of their communities. The highest value must be placed on chances to contribute to society.
These days, communication is dominated by the digital, so even in times of isolation, I think collective goals are well within reach. I believe the world of the future will be more emotional, featuring leaders passionate about their roles.
Among the common characteristics of future leaders is a strong commitment to all things collective. LLYC’s study shows that they consistently foster a sense of community through their actions. In general, companies that have strengthened their societal connections have emerged from this pandemic stronger for the experience. It’s clear that in today’s climate, “corporate activism” has seen increased visibility and companies have developed a new outlook. Would you agree?
I believe this pandemic is a litmus test. “Brand activism” is a term we once used to refer to corporate social responsibility, wielded in large part as a marketing tool, but in today’s market, brand activism has found a place at the core of many companies. You can see it gaining higher and higher organizational priority. Above all, brand activism has become a factor for companies’ competitive ability. These days, the public is demanding corporate responsibility from us, and we are also tasked with adopting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This pandemic has effectively forced us to see everything through a lens of humanity and solidarity. In fact, the new outlook many companies are developing already existed prior to this crisis, allowing for a smooth transition by those able to recognize and harness it.
Another characteristic of new leadership is the significant shift toward the digital. What role should leaders take in the realm of social media? Is such a presence inevitable?
No one quite agrees on the answer, in my experience. Personally, I present myself on social media as Chairman of CEOE, and I see it as just another method of raising our company’s profile and boosting transparency. My social media account also acts as a direct communications channel for community use, which is useful for questions and issues outside the purview of standard channels. I’m convinced that companies should maintain close relationships with the public, even if that often exposes them to criticism.
This pandemic has led to widespread working from home. Do you have any thoughts about that? Will this new normal impact leadership and management?
Since the start of the pandemic, and all the more once CEOE adopted work from home, we have been saying that the best course is to develop a mixed model, one in which everyone can benefits from the advantages of remote work, such as greatly improved sustainability. At the same time, it would also be ideal to maintain the high level of connection that occurs in a physical workplace. This sense of community is essential. It enables teambuilding, develops company culture, and can even help stave off the “cabin fever” many remote workers feel after long periods of isolation.
With all that in mind, I believe it’s perfectly possible to lead effectively while working remotely, but this method requires workers to hold a greater share of the responsibility.On the part of the leader, it necessitates greater trust in workers.
However, I must emphasize that in the current moment, leaders will be more empathetic, inclusive, and emotional. The connections teams form from personal contact and practical matters (such as the ease of staying up-to-date on operational and worker needs) are irreplaceable. It is imperative that leaders committed to teleworking find ways to build and maintain those close personal relationships.
You have always defended enterprise, large and small alike. This pandemic and subsequent changes to consumption habits have doubtless had a significant impact on this sector. In your opinion, is this the time to be supporting more local businesses?
Yes, absolutely. Local businesses have suffered during the pandemic, there’s no question about that. This is as true for local businesses as it is for the many other sectors CEOE has been working with in an, attempt to alleviate problems through dialogue with the government and trade unions. However, as necessary as this work is, there is much to do from other angles as well. We must adhere to health and safety measures, conduct large-scale testing, and promote track- and- trace systems so the safety of these businesses can be ensured. There should also be efforts to ensure that incoming European funding be used to best effect, such as for promoting SME digitalization.
Recently, the IMF published some dire forecasts regarding the Spanish economy. Do you share this pessimism? Do you foresee recovery taking longer than expected? What do you think is a reasonable baseline for a return to normalcy?
It’s true that while the IMF has improved its projections for other similar countries, Spain has not enjoyed such a shift. It’s also true that the IMF forecasts are more pessimistic than CEOE’s. That said, I believe that in a time of such pervasive uncertainty, such forecasts are prone to sudden changes. In my opinion, our focus should be on continually moving forward and working to avert these negative prognoses.
How? Regarding our own methodology, we agree with the IMF and the Bank of Spain. We must continue stimulus efforts for as long as is necessary to support productivity and allow for household consumption. It’s imperative we continue shoring up the economy.
Behind the scenes, it’s essential we make good use of the European funds I mentioned earlier. We’re looking at up to 140 billion euros with the purpose of fixing the economy. And when I say fix, I don’t just mean bringing it back to life, but also formulate a more industrial, more digital, and more sustainable organizational model. Such a model will improve productivity and enable us to create more and better jobs.
This is an opportunity to rise from the ashes stronger than ever before. CEOE continues to work tirelessly with the Office for Technical Support for European Projects, aiming to secure funding for companies pursuing projects which will further these goals.
In your latest public appearances, you’ve seemed somewhat concerned about today’s political situation, and more specifically, about the radical tendencies seen in certain leaders. Should new leaders err on the side of restraint?
Absolutely. I believe society currently suffers from an excess of noise. The public wants us to lead with a firm hand, eyes fixed on the horizon while we all to work shoulder to shoulder. This means leaving aside extremes, making efforts to ease tensions, exercising restraint, and building, building, building. Anyone who wants to be part of the solution must take part, from the political class to business leaders to common community members. There’s too much at stake to continue these divisive disputes.
How are you personally dealing with these extraordinary circumstances? What positives, if any, will you be taking away from this experience?
To me, like many others, the pandemic is an uncomfortable, worrying, and sad situation. But my position affords me an opportunity to actively take part in finding a solution. It’s a great responsibility and an enormous privilege, to be able to serve our communities and country at such a critical time. What I will take away is surely a strong admiration for Spanish society, which has thus far boldly weathered all hardships thrown its way. The pandemic will end eventually, and when it does, we’ll all look back and realize how great our country really is. If I come away from this experience with any one emotion, it will be great pride in Spain.