I’m often talking on this podcast and elsewhere about the disruption and turbulence that’s facing many companies and industries. That disruption is probably most acute in the real estate sector. The dual challenge of the impact of online shopping on our high streets alongside what hybrid working means for office space and towns and cities means that as an industry, it’s grappling with deep uncertainty. So I’m thrilled to be able to welcome Mark Allen onto today’s podcast. Mark is the CEO of Landsec PLC, Landsec is a FTSE 100 real estate business, it’s been around for about 80 years.
It operates in three main areas it owns and manages in Central London office space. It owns and manages major retail destinations, shopping centres, and also mixed use regeneration. In the 80 or so years that it’s been around, the business has obviously adapted and evolved with their changing living shopping and working habits during that time. I wonder if the incremental change of the first 70 years or so was even a match for the sheer level of disruption of the last 10 years when the Internet has really taken off. The last two was locked down and the normalising of hybrid work. I joined Mark and Victoria in London, to talk about the way that he and his executive team are stepping up to these challenges. I began by asking him. What is his thoughts about all of this disruption?
I think for the real estate sector at large, one of the things that has been most significant in the last decade has been the pace of change. A sector that I think in many ways, has been quite traditional and how it’s thought about its business and how to operate and strategy, etc. I think it’s been traditional and relatively slow moving, this had to become to be successful, much more agile, much more customer facing much more operational. I think that’s affected different companies in different parts of the sector in different ways. At the end of that decade, we then had two years of disruption has resulted in a pandemic and that’s a really interesting impact because the parts of our business anywhere that will be most impacted over the last 10 or so years has been the retail sector. The shift to online shopping and the the online penetration now is probably around 30% across various categories, on average. That’s had a profound impact on demand for physical retail space in shopping centres on high streets is is well understood and covered at length in the media. That was happening anyway, what happened with the pandemic is that got materially accelerated. So the the the silver lining of that particular cloud is that we’ve got, in my view anyway to the same endpoint. We’ve just got there a lot quicker. That means we now have opportunities relating to that it’s at the bottom of the market, not many people buying I’m quite a contrarian in my views on these things. I think there’s some really quite interesting opportunities. Office is something different where I think there has been for quite some time, a focus on increasing as an employer, the quality of your office space, the sustainability credentials of your office space, and a big part of that has been about attracting and retaining the right calibre of staff.
The pandemic then demonstrated just how feasible it is to do big chunks of your role. Obviously, it varies from role to role business to business, but working remotely. That means that I think employers are looking even more sharply at well, how do we have office space that attracts not only attracts and retains talent to the business, but actually brings them into the office, because that’s what we need for developing our culture, and maintaining and moving on our values, for example, that’s how we best collaborate and get the best out of people. That’s how we onboard people. That’s how we spend time meeting clients winning work, etc. I think the focus on the quality of your workplace is even more significant now than it was pre pandemic.
I know that some big investment banks and things have said, “We are just going to be completely working from home”. This is having a material impact on the business in terms of people deciding that they’re moving out of London.
In terms of moving out of London, I think it is having an impact on the nature of demand for office space. So if you’re a major bank, or large corporate headquarters, and you’ve got a significant real estate footprint, and a big part of that is occupied by back office functions. And you’ve got the opportunity to sort of rotor the work effectively, so that you can occupy less space by having teams working for two or three days a week and dovetailing in terms of their use of the space. I think we will see more and more of that happening. So major corporate headquarters, I think are likely to shrink in terms of their overall requirements. For the vast majority of our portfolio, it’s multi left. So single buildings like the one we’re sat in, at the moment, we’ll have multiple different tenants. They tend to be focused on getting the right quality of space, the right collaboration space, they don’t know exactly how they want to use the space, but they know it needs to be super high quality to attract and retain the best staff, if they’re happy that they’re going to be prepared to occupy on a less dense basis. Most people are coming in on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If everyone’s in on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, you need as much space as if they’re in on a Monday to Friday, unless you’re gonna start trying to programme it, which I think generally speaking, occupiers aren’t. So they’re managing for peak demand, not average demand.
You were one of the chief executives who took part in the advanced executive fluency research, which was recently published. We talked about that in futures fluency, the requirement of executive teams to try and get ahead of the trends and disruptors, that may come down the road. Not one of us saw specifically COVID coming, we couldn’t have predicted the impact that COVID would have a prolonged lockdown. Then the shift to hybrid work, and the fact that people embraced it so much.
There was a sense that they wanted to continue with hybrid. Obviously, you were experiencing the shifts in retail for quite a long time. Can you say a little bit about? What’s coming next for retail? Or for Office? Or for everything within your portfolio? How do you, as an executive team, sort of cast your gaze to the very long term to try and not just be agile and responsive when things happen, but also kind of get ahead of the curve and anticipate those things?
I guess there are a few different things that I or we would think about within that. So I think it’s firstly, even more important than it has been, for a long time to be close to your customers, talking to your customers, understanding what stresses and strains they have within their business, where they see opportunities where they see risk.
Ultimately, what can we do to help them improve their performance. I think that’s probably the most important thing. So particularly, if I am on the retail side, my sense of the real estate sector historically was that it was more focused on the transactional relationship of the lease that a retailer signs and making sure that the REIT that the lease had a nice high rent in it. That justified a high notional value for an asset. There wasn’t enough understanding of what the business plans and the stresses and strains that those retailers were were dealing with and what impact that might have longer term. If you talk to retailers now, particularly those that are more advanced, they’re operating globally and they understand how to make their business work in an omni channel world. There are some really interesting trends coming from that. This is not particularly difficult to see how they actually want fewer larger stores, for example, in the very best locations. That’s not necessarily looking for super long term or being overly radical. It’s quite a significant shift in the market, which we should be proactive about making the most of rather than that just happening, and us not being necessarily aware of why it’s happening. If we know that retailers are looking for particular locations, and they want to have large stores in those locations, then we should be factoring that into our investment and development plans much more proactively. I think being prepared to try different things, I talk a lot with our office team here, for example, about if we’re one of the biggest, if not the biggest player in the sector, and often people worry about or what could come and disrupt the market, I think we should have the mindset of what are we going to do to disrupt the market? Why are things done this way? Can they be done a different way? What can we do that could be more radical, that’s quite a difficult mindset to get people thinking, if you’re not used to thinking and working like that there’s not something you’re just going to flick a switch and be able to work like that. That’s ultimately I think, how we need to be.
That’s really interesting, So that kind of more forward looking, innovative, creative outlook. Are you talking at the executive level or right across the organisation? Where do you think that kind of way of thinking about things is most important?
If you don’t have it at the executive level, you’re not going to get it in the rest of the organisation or if it is somewhere else in the organisation, it’s not going to thrive and probably won’t survive elsewhere in the organisation. So it has to be from the from the leadership team.
Are you able to see how you’re cultivating that within the executive team? Some people are more wired for that way of thinking than others.
To be absolutely honest, I think it’s still early days for us in many ways. We’ve had a number of new people join the business in the last year or so, so I think that’s always helpful in bringing a different perspective. If you’ve been in an organisation for a long period of time, and a business has been successful during that period of time, you have your point of reference for what works and what good and what great looks like, is by its very nature going to be quite introspective. I think bringing people in with a fresh perspective, whether that’s through hiring people, whether that’s through bringing people into work with a team, you’ve got a different perspective. I think that’s really important and encouraging people to go out and from executive team and spend time with people from other sectors from other businesses. More often than not, you’ll find that people are grappling with the same issues or perhaps trying to go after the same opportunities, even though they’re similar. They’re quite different sector. Actually, there’s quite a lot of read across and similarity in the challenges and opportunities that people are working with.
You said something really interesting. That if it doesn’t happen at the executive level, it doesn’t happen everywhere else. And that’s a view I hold, dear. The way that the executive team functions has a profound impact on how the organisation functions. So can you say a little bit about your executive the sort of size of it the way that you’ve structured it and the way that work is done in that team?
I mentioned at the outset that we have three, two parts of the business, central London offices, major retail destinations, and urban mixed use development., so effectively, we have teams that run each of those three parts of the business. So I think first and foremost, having teams that are accountable for delivering an element of the strategy or elements of performance of the business is really important. Now each of the people that lead those teams are then part of the group exco, effectively, alongside myself CFO, we’ve got a COO who looks sort of coordinates across those, and then we’ve got HR and corporate affairs as a representation there as well.
One of the challenges you’ll always have with teams like that is if you’ve got three ostensibly quite different businesses, you need to make sure that the executive team is working at a level where you’re not all spending lots of time talking about offices, and then talking about mixed use and then talking about retail, because you’re always going to have half the people there that don’t feel particularly engaged with that. I’ve focused the exec team much more on understanding other elements of performance in the business that we should be aware of from a strategy point of view. It has is something happening and how the business is performing, which means we need to think about strategy and where we allocate capital, where we allocate resources will then focus on strategy itself. What’s the long term looking like for different parts of our business? What are the broader macro themes that we’re grappling with? So what impact is inflation in the current market, for example, going to have on our business and of course it will have a different impact on different parts of the business. What does that mean for where we should be investing, where we should be divesting where we need to develop new talent, new approaches, work differently with a supply chain, whatever it may be. Then we focus on people and organisation. So what are the what are the organisation wide aspects of talent strategy and bringing people in retaining developing people? What’s the tech platform? What’s the cyber aspect of things that we need to make sure the CIO? So we try and focus that team on the organisation wide things, and then have the business units, if you like their teams, their focus for executing their particular parts of the strategy, we try not to mix those two things up.
That’s absolutely terrific to hear because one of the things that we often see in the executives teams that I’m working with, is that there’s too much of a focus on the functional within the executive, and not enough on the Enterprise leadership. What you’re referring to as the executive, is the coming together as an enterprise leadership. I’m curious as to how you go about that, then. So how are your meetings kind of structured? You know, one of the things we see, particularly as relates to innovation, for example, I know teams that are really keen to do quite different things, but they’re stuck in a 32 point agenda. They can’t get out of that. Therefore, the ability to kind of do the innovative stuff happens, only sporadically. Does that provide you with the space and the capacity to kind of do that different sorts of thinking? And how do you go about that? Do you still have traditional meetings? Or do you also have different sorts of meetings where you do different sorts of thinking.
So I think we certainly will, from time to time across the course of the year, make sure we have meetings as a team that are less about the here and now. What decisions we need to make about a big picture blue sky thinking maybe it’s spending more time on team development or understanding each other’s motivations and how we can work more effectively together as a team. I try and think about the rest of the meetings, really, in terms of the rhythm of the business across the whole year. And this is perhaps slightly simplistic for work, the way I try and think about things is for the first half of each year, you’ve just set your budgets and your business plans for the current year, everyone’s clear what we’re seeking to achieve. That’s for me a good time to with the executive team and deal with the board, and it’s involving your non executives in the right way as well, to spend some time on the longer term strategic thinking. So every year, we will update our long term strategic plan. As part of that, we’ll pick a number of issues to deep dive into more details, we’ll take last year’s plan well, so we’re now we need to what’s changed in different parts of our business? Where might there be new opportunities, let’s dig into and understand that a bit more, evolve our strategic plan a little bit more, and then the second six months, that then translates into the updated annual business plan and ultimately setting the budgets which will tend to sort of do a two year view, if we can. So we’ve got that cycle ongoing where we try and decouple those parts of the year longer term strategic thinking, what’s that mean, then for actually mean really all we can influence as a senior leadership team, in my view is that is the pace and direction that we choose to take the business. So I’m building momentum slowly. For me, that’s always worked as a way of building momentum is being aware that it’s an uncertain environment, the direction might not be so clear. So you probably just want to throttle back on the pace a little bit. You’ve got to have the time out to think about the long term in order to judge those things.
How do you pivot then? If you know, as you see it in an uncertain environment, so how does the team make the decisions to make the big pivots? If you see things happening, like the kind of inflationary environment that we’re operating in right now, to see what does that mean for our business? Does that just happen in the typical rhythm of your meetings?
The nature of our type of business? We are aware of the really important decisions is there tend to be a relatively small number of significant decisions. So unsurprisingly, there’ll be a fair amount of governance and structure around those. So in the real estate world, really, I think you’ve got kind of three big things. You’ve got to try and ideally and get it right. You’ve got to be clear what you’re investing in. You’ve got to be clear how much you’re going to pay for that. You’ll be clear about how you’re going to finance it. If you get two of those three things right. You’re going to be okay, if you get two of them wrong, then that’s what It leads to problems in business.
The big decisions would be, do we invest in a new development projects or not. There will be a detailed appraisal viability for that particular project. There will be an investment committee approval or a board approval. We will look at that point in time and say, right, well, how do we feel about the outlook for occupied demand? If we’re building an office, it’s going to be three to four years before we’re actually leasing it? So we’ve got to understand as best we can, what do we think the demand supply? Picture is going to be like in three to four years time? We can underwrite the build cost now, because we’ll have a contractor that will do that. So have we got sufficiently detailed designed to be able to underwrite the cost? Does it hit our required return? Is our required return? Correct? At that point, do we think actually, in the current market rates 150 basis points higher than they were? Do we need to move our hurdle rate? For example, how does that affect our our assumptions, so we tend to have quite specific decision points around major investments or major divestments that help with that, if we were going to be looking to make a material change. So for example, deciding to sell assets more quickly than prior to our plan. More often than not, those will be things that will come up more through our regular meetings. And that probably between myself and our strategy, or investment teams or say actually, we think the environments changing. And we think as a result, we should be trying to move more quickly in this and a bit more slowly in that.
Given that enterprise wide focus that you’re talking about are company wide focus that your executive team have, what’s really required in terms of the capability of the individuals and the team in order to be able to operate that because you’ve talked about these three, kind of functional areas, if you like, each one of them, presumably comes with a deep specialisation in their particular area. People who are deeply competent in their own functional area aren’t always necessarily, then also good at the enterprise. So what’s needed at the executive level?
I think the point you make is absolutely rather people can be very good specialists in particular areas and can sometimes struggle to translate that into a wider business context. I guess it’s most important that from your chief executive in your CFOs, as you do have enough people that have that breadth and you don’t ask too much of people, or expect too much of people in terms of what they’re able to do, because obviously, you employ a lot these people for their particular specialism. So I suppose it becomes important to look at the composition of your team and make sure that you haven’t got an overly siloed team of HR specialists and you’ve got enough people that are broader in the business or you’re clear, you might have someone who’s a specialist in office, for example, but you also want to get them involved in the sustainability agenda. Because it’s very relevant for that part of the portfolio, but it also has a read across elsewhere in the business. So I think you can introduce business wide topics, grounded in a particular part of the business that helps people actually develop a bit more of a perspective of what’s happening across the wider group.
So that’s really interesting, because I’ve just completed the podcast episode number 14, is with two chief people officers, one with Telenor, the Norwegian telecommunications company and the other with Su Su Ke, which does waste management and recycling. Both of those Chief People officers have expanded roles that go beyond just the people portfolio, one looks at sustainability, the other looks at health and safety, you know, has responsibility for health and safety. So have you formalised that within the Executive? Or are the portfolio’s of the executive team members expanding? Or do you tend to do that more informally?
I think for us, probably more informal at the moment. It’s more looking for people from the executive team to lead on,particularly to find issues and priorities that they can lead on that is beyond their own areas, so they get more visibility and experience across the group. So rather than saying formally, cover sustainability, for example, we might have a particular push on an aspect of our sustainability agenda, which might be with a strategy for decarbonizing the portfolio. So it might be that bit that we want someone from the executive team to lead on. So it becomes a business issue, not a sustainability issue, but I think people do it slightly less formally than then expanding people’s briefs
So let me ask this, and it’s a really genuine question around thinking about the Executives. I hold the belief that I genuinely want to know, that despite the chief executive that has led these teams, that executive teams worked in a particular way that was fairly static for quite a long time, around the way that they lead the business. What’s required now, given the disruption and turbulence that’s happening in the environment is that we do need our executive leaders to, to have stepped up a little bit and to lead in a way, that, for example, is much more holistic and its outlook around the stakeholder environment. We live in a very pluralistic society, we have much wider stakeholder needs you’re a PLC, so you’ve got your shareholders to look after. Our responsibilities don’t start and stop with our shareholders, they go much wider than that. am I overstating it? Or do you think that the role of the executive is fundamentally changing. We live in this much more complex stakeholder environment, and the needs and desires of people out there are changing,
I think it’s certainly more complex. You’re having to manage multiple stakeholder expectations or stakeholder perspectives, that some of those are going to be competing priorities. Sometimes you’re going to need to judge, which ones should take a little bit of priority. I think in many cases, things perhaps aren’t necessarily quite as much in conflict as people might initially see.
Sometimes you need to think through it, maybe a little bit more complex takes a bit longer, but you can find a solution that actually works very well and ended up with a better solution through that. So I think that does mean that demands more of people leading and running businesses. What you’re going to need to be successful for the next 10 years is not necessarily going to be the same thing that made you successful the for the previous time. That’s a big challenge for leaders, because I think when you get to a senior leadership position in an organisation, you have a perception of how you got there. What made you successful, and you have a tendency to, therefore value those attributes and strengths in people within the organisation. So you sort of perpetuate. I’ve got people in the business who have been acquired quite a long time, but I’ve got other people haven’t been here that long, But they have quite a very similar quest set way of thinking about how things should be done. I think that’s because leaders in the business sector, we look for often similar traits and similar approaches in their teams. That doesn’t feel to me like a recipe for getting more radical, broad, diverse thinking to how you deal with an increasingly increasingly complex external environment.
So how are you overcoming those things?
Not easy by any stretch. So it means in the leadership team, you need to have a balance of fresh injection of fresh thoughts, fresh perspective, so almost certainly going to be hiring into the team. We’ve had a number of new joiners into the team in the last 12 or so months. The most powerful thing you can do in an organisation is if people see someone who works in a particular way, historically starts to work in a different way, and is getting a lot more success through doing that having a lot more impact. That sort of thing can be a lot more impactful and lasting way in business. That’s not easy. You’ve got to try and work with existing team as well. That involves a fair amount of sort of real time coaching.
You’ve talked about the new members of your team and refreshing the team. Is there anything you’re looking for now, in people at the C suite, skills or attributes or outlooks that are different than you were perhaps looking for?
I guess there’s some things that I feel even more important than they were previously. I think that is dealing with ambiguity, being prepared to make decisions on a timely basis with the best information available, rather than wait until you’ve got all of the information and then make a decision. People need to realise that if you don’t make a decision, that is a decision to not make a decision. And sometimes thinking a tendency to think the whole world is going to wait while you decide what you want to do and then start up again. So I think dealing with ambiguity and complexity and being prepared to make decisions on the best available information at that point, continually review, see if things have changed and whether things need to be a bit of course correction. I think that’s probably the most important thing I would look for. Then probably curiosity, and just being curious about your own business about the markets you’re operating in about other businesses,stuff outside of the business world, I think if you’re curious about things, you can come across little bits of information or little bits of ideas and inspiration that you can bring back into business. I think that there is more opportunity for that sort of thing to happen.I think was the case previously.
Earlier on in this conversation you talked about, well, if it doesn’t happen at the top, you can’t make it happen. If people don’t below have an idea, or they see something, how does it get back up? I guess both of those things around the curiosity are people who are close to the customer sporting things that could be helpful for the Executive? Is there any formal mechanism that you’ve got for the executive, listening to the people in the organisation, whether it’s within their own teams, or at a more kind of whole organisational level?
There are definitely two aspects of things are not not overly formal, I would say. But yeah, it’s important to try and get your communication and engagement is a two way thing, not a broadcast thing. I think one of the things that the pandemic reminded people to do actually probably demonstrated the central power of things was the ability to get townhall type environments together quite regularly. And the ability to actually for those to be two way channels in terms of q&a and feedback. But ultimately, I think we’re focusing a lot on it with with varying degrees of success, but just on making sure that leaders or managers in the business understand the important role they have in communicating down in the business, as well as communicating up in the business and just trying to help upskill people in that area.
And we’ve talked about the role that hybrid working has had on your strategic outlook for, you know, for the office side of your business. But of course, you as a business has also been impacted by COVID. And the shift to working online. I mean, how does how’s that all going you what’s what’s happened in Landsec around the shift to hybrid working and where are people at with it?
Prior to the pandemic, we effectively had a flexible working policy. But I think the one thing I suppose having a policy, it’s another thing that people seeing the behaviours or whatever. So everyone intended to be in the office. Therefore, that was the thing that people felt was the right thing to do. So I don’t think it was used, applied enormously. We then had, as with everyone, the uncertainty of the return to the office, pre vaccine, and then going into the next winter, and people being uncertain about travelling, or public transport, being in crowded places, etc. So there was a relatively slow return. But then you also had the fact that the too often you can think about the business being in the office, whereas actually, we’ve got a lot of people in our workforce and other organisations be far more distributed than than us, whether people in frontline roles, nothing’s changed for them. And so sometimes you can have all this sort of flexible working, and it becomes a little bit too much of an introspective view on the head office, rather than actually, the organisation and the people who are closest to your customers are still close to customers. I think where we’re settling down now is that and again, I don’t think this is particularly unusual. We’ve not mandated certain days in or certain minimum number of days, etc. What tends to happen is that we see effectively, essentially, everyone in on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Pretty much. Yes, yeah. Less so on a Monday, and definitely not on a Friday. I think Fridays were had been like that for a while anyway, more generally. And I didn’t get a sense of there being any negative impact on productivity. Monday’s are the one that perhaps concern me a little bit more, because I do think you set the tone on the priorities for the week, on a Monday. And if that’s not happening, then I think that could have a bearing over time. Yeah.
Something that’s just popped into my head. I’m just curious as to your opinion about it. Is this experiment, I don’t know if you’ve heard about this experiment of trying to take the work that you would do over five days before and do your it over four? What’s your view on that?
I applaud organisations, I think they want to try and see whether they can do things differently. I think they think people should be trying, I think there’s like 70 odd companies, I think, that are that are formally part of that trial. And we should be prepared to think unconventionally on things I’ve always been intuitively, much more interested in measuring the outputs and the deliverables in a business than than the inputs. And so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to look at where of maximising productivity, whether that’s a four or five day, whether working four days or five days, helps or hinders that I don’t know, my own view probably is having flexibility over the five days, so that you can distribute your time accordingly and make sure that your work and your non work commitments can coexist effectively, I think is probably the most important thing to have. So this idea that you’ve got to be in an office at nine o’clock in the morning, and you leave at 530. And it’s creates those huge, great rush hours, either end of the day, getting in 11, and going home at eight o’clock, if that works better for you. It’s absolutely fine doing couple of short days in a couple of longer days, if that works for you. Fine. So that’s I think there’s probably more mileage in letting people work out what works for them individually, and what works for their teams individually, rather than saying, Well, we’re gonna go to a four day week rather than five days a week, which could sound a bit gimmicky, I don’t know, maybe in certain sectors, that is a great way of attracting talent in a world where people perhaps feel that having more formal downtime is an important thing for them.
I wonder what that means then for how people manage because it’s one thing, managing people that you can see, physically co located during the same office hours. That’s a whole different ballgame, trying to manage remotely and when people are coming and going. And so what do you make of that?
I think it probably makes much clearer strong management, good managers, and weaker managers, if you’re a strong manager, working to outputs and deliverables. And it’s clear what’s expected of someone over the next week, two weeks, whatever it might be longer term, and you can use your judging progress against those objectives. But I think it matters where you are, if you’re a little less structured on that and more reliant on osmosis or something to just, you know, need to know they’re there, just in case I want to go and ask them the question, then, hybrid working is going to expose that but I think that was that was already a limitation that was being perhaps masked by the dimensional way that people were working.
And just one last question, then Mark, as a chief executive, then, beyond the hard strategic things that we’ve talked around, I mean, hard does in kind of around the future of retail or office, and, you know, the technical aspects of your work what as a chief executive, is the kind of thing that keeps you awake at night, that you know, is one of those boomerang issues that kind of keep coming back to.
I would say, probably culture, if we’re looking in an organisation, just making sure that we’re on track to get the culture where we needed to be. And then externally, links to the earlier point about sort of complex, environmental and multiple stakeholders, being clear about where our business and business more generally sort of fits within the fabric of society and making sure that we’re alive to that and are very clear that what our purpose is as a business and the fact that us being around and doing what we’re doing is adding value for for more people than just our shareholders. Well,
Thank you very much indeed for coming on the podcast.
Thank you very much.
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