The UK’s vote to leave the European Union demands strong leadership in a way few other events in our recent history have required.
Since the result of the referendum, much of the language and rhetoric has verged on the sensationalist, provoking a sense of unease at a time when the country needs composure and reassurance.
In times of great change people look for perspective and guidance. Business leaders now need to show such strength and intent, recognising the role they will play in the months and years ahead.
We must step up; be visible; demonstrate decisiveness; and ensure a clear line of communication to our workforce and the wider markets. We also have to recognise that the voice of business failed to resonate with the electorate during the referendum campaign, and find a way to re-connect business with our communities across the country.
Undoubtedly, one of the casualties of this referendum, and subsequent political fallout, is trust. The public’s trust in business and government is fundamental to confidence in our capital markets and, consequently, sustainable economic growth. The fragility of this trust means it can only be protected by strength of leadership and a willingness to embrace a culture of openness and transparency.
One of the most vociferous messages I’ve heard from Deloitte’s own stakeholders since the referendum is that business must confront the needs of society and play a positive role in communities – beyond the boundaries of our capital city. It’s clear companies need to address the perception that big business is too focused on creating wealth for the few and not enough on its wider impact on society.
I believe business must now work with government to set a vision for a post-EU environment that is open, pro-growth and, crucially, delivers prosperity and opportunity for all.
Rebuilding this trust also means leaders need to be honest about the challenges that Brexit will bring. There is no doubt this is a period of uncertainty, potential disruption and change. However, the business world is used to shocks. It is prepared for them and is resilient and adaptable. We in business have a responsibility to champion the strength and success of our nation.
The UK is a leader in a global world. It is in the top tier of the most competitive economies and, as the foremost global financial centre, London’s timezone, the English language and a highly-skilled international workforce bestow a huge competitive advantage.
Yet business cannot sit on its hands for the next two years waiting for a deal to be struck between the UK and the EU. Our priority is to be proactive in finding ways to drive growth – and I believe we are strongly placed to do this.
Rather than derailing our plans, Brexit can catalyse the focus on how to tackle some of the biggest issues in the UK, such as education and skills, infrastructure and productivity.
For example, it’s critical that the current political hiatus does not disrupt investment, particularly in digital and physical infrastructure. Infrastructure investment can play a significant role in enabling more inclusive growth, improving living standards, and creating benefits that are spread throughout the country.
It will also be vital that government does not lose focus on the changes in employment caused by increasing automation in the workplace. This requires a clear strategy to help the UK fully profit from technological advances while at the same time ensuring such innovation doesn’t cause increasing division in society between the haves and have nots.
Our workforce must have the skills and education to help business capitalise on the opportunities, and respond to the competitive threats created by the Leave vote.
A key component of innovation and competitiveness is diversity, and I am proud of the diverse workforce we have at Deloitte – made up of 107 nationalities from across the globe, including many EU citizens.
Clarity on how UK businesses access international talent will be of great importance and, in my view, it is essential the UK remains an open and attractive place for the most talented individuals to live and work. In the short term, this means providing reassurance that non-British EU citizens will be able to continue living and working here, and that the same rights will be extended to British nationals working across Europe.
I am confident the UK is in a position to navigate this time of change, and will retain its global influence and reputation as an attractive place for international talent and investment.
But it’s up to business leaders to counter the perception that the Leave vote means the UK will retreat from world affairs, be any less welcoming to highly-skilled international workers, or that its global role may shrink. I believe the creativity, diversity and innovative mindset of the UK is the foundation of our future success.