Provider executives already know America’s hospitals and health systems are seeing rapidly deteriorating finances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. They’re just not yet sure of the extent of the damage.
By the end of June, COVID-19 will have delivered an estimated $200 billion blow to these institutions with the bulk of losses stemming from cancelled elective and nonelective surgeries, according to the American Hospital Association.
A recent Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA)/Guidehouse COVID-19 survey suggests these patient volumes will be slow to return, with half of provider executive respondents anticipating it will take through the end of the year or longer to return to pre-COVID levels. Moreover, one-in-three provider executives expect to close the year with revenues at 15 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels. One-in-five of them believe those decreases will soar to 30 percent or beyond.
Available cash is also in short supply. A Guidehouse analysis of 350 hospitals nationwide found that cash on hand is projected to drop by 50 days on average by the end of the year — a 26% plunge — assuming that hospitals must repay accelerated and/or advanced Medicare payments.
While the government is providing much needed aid, just 11% of the COVID survey respondents expect emergency funding to cover their COVID-related costs.
The figures illustrate how the virus has hurled American medicine into unparalleled volatility. No one knows how long patients will continue to avoid getting elective care, or how state restrictions and climbing unemployment will affect their decision making once they have the option.
All of which leaves one thing for certain: Healthcare’s delivery, operations, and competitive dynamics are poised to undergo a fundamental and likely sustained transformation.
Here are six changes coming sooner rather than later.
1. Payer-provider complexity on the rise; patients will struggle.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder that margins are driven by elective services. While insurers show strong earnings — with some offering rebates due to lower reimbursements — the same cannot be said for patients. As businesses struggle, insured patients will labor under higher deductibles, leaving them reluctant to embrace elective procedures. Such reluctance will be further exacerbated by the resurgence of case prevalence, government responses, reopening rollbacks, and inconsistencies in how the newly uninsured receive coverage.
Furthermore, the upholding of the hospital price transparency ruling will add additional scrutiny and significance for how services are priced and where providers are able to make positive margins. The end result: The payer-provider relationship is about to get even more complicated.
2. Best-in-class technology will be a necessity, not a luxury.
COVID has been a boon for telehealth and digital health usage and investments. Two-thirds of survey respondents anticipate using telehealth five times more than they did pre-pandemic. Yet, only one-third believe their organizations are fully equipped to handle the hike.
If healthcare is to meet the shift from in-person appointments to video, it will require rapid investment in things like speech recognition software, patient information pop-up screens, increased automation, and infrastructure to smooth workflows.
Historically, digital technology was viewed as a disruption that increased costs but didn’t always make life easier for providers. Now, caregiver technologies are focused on just that.
The new necessities of the digital world will require investments that are patient-centered and improve access and ease of use, all the while giving providers the platform to better engage, manage, and deliver quality care.
After all, the competition at the door already holds a distinct technological advantage.
3. The tech giants are coming.
Some of America’s biggest companies are indicating they believe they can offer more convenient, more affordable care than traditional payers and providers.
Begin with Amazon, which has launched clinics for its Seattle employees, created the PillPack online pharmacy, and is entering the insurance market with Haven Healthcare, a partnership that includes Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase. Walmart, which already operates pharmacies and retail clinics, is now opening Walmart Health Centers, and just recently announced it is getting into the Medicare Advantage business.
Meanwhile, Walgreens has announced it is partnering with VillageMD to provide primary care within its stores.
The intent of these organizations clear: Large employees see real business opportunities, which represents new competition to the traditional provider models.
It isn’t just the magnitude of these companies that poses a threat. They also have much more experience in providing integrated, digitally advanced services.
4. Work locations changes mean construction cost reductions.
If there’s one thing COVID has taught American industry – and healthcare in particular – it’s the importance of being nimble.
Many back-office corporate functions have moved to a virtual environment as a result of the pandemic, leaving executives wondering whether they need as much real estate. According to the survey, just one-in-five executives expect to return to the same onsite work arrangements they had before the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, capital expenditures, including new and existing construction, leads the list of targets for cost reductions.
Such savings will be critical now that investment income can no longer be relied upon to sustain organizations — or even buy a little time. Though previous disruptions spawned only marginal change, the unprecedented nature of COVID will lead to some uncomfortable decisions, including the need for a quicker return on investments.
5. Consolidation is coming.
Consolidation can be interpreted as a negative concept, particularly as healthcare is mostly delivered at a local level. But the pandemic has only magnified the differences between the “resilients” and the “non-resilients.”
All will be focused on rebuilding patient volume, reducing expenses, and addressing new payment models within a tumultuous economy. Yet with near-term cash pressures and liquidity concerns varying by system, the winners and losers will quickly emerge. Those with at least a 6% to 8% operating margin to innovate with delivery and reimagine healthcare post-COVID will be the strongest. Those who face an eroding financial position and market share will struggle to stay independent..
6. Policy will get more thoughtful and data-driven.
The initial coronavirus outbreak and ensuing responses by both the private and public sectors created negative economic repercussions in an accelerated timeframe. A major component of that response was the mandated suspension of elective procedures.
While essential, the impact on states’ economies, people’s health, and the employment market have been severe. For example, many states are currently facing inverse financial pressures with the combination of reductions in tax revenue and the expansion of Medicaid due to increases in unemployment. What’s more, providers will be subject to the ongoing reckonings of outbreak volatility, underscoring the importance of agile policy that engages stakeholders at all levels.
As states have implemented reopening plans, public leaders agree that alternative responses must be developed. Policymakers are in search of more thoughtful, data-driven approaches, which will likely require coordination with health system leaders to develop flexible preparation plans that facilitate scalable responses. The coordination will be difficult, yet necessary to implement resource and operational responses that keeps healthcare open and functioning while managing various levels of COVID outbreaks, as well as future pandemics.
Healthcare has largely been insulated from previous economic disruptions, with capital spending more acutely affected than operations. But the COVID-19 pandemic will very likely be different. Through the pandemic, providers are facing a long-term decrease in commercial payment, coupled with a need to boost caregiver- and consumer-facing engagement, all during a significant economic downturn.
While situations may differ by market, it’s clear that the pre-pandemic status quo won’t work for most hospitals or health systems.
[Readers’ Note: This is the first of two articles on the Future of Hospitals in Post-COVID America. This article
examines how market forces are consolidating, rationalizing and redistributing acute care assets within the
broader industry movement to value-based care delivery. The second article, which will publish next month,
examines gaps in care delivery and the related public policy challenges of providing appropriate, accessible
and affordable healthcare services in medically-underserved communities.]
In her insightful 2016 book, The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore,
Michelle Wucker coins the term “Gray Rhinos” and contrasts them with “Black Swans.” That distinction is
highly relevant to the future of American hospitals.
Black Swans are high impact events that are highly improbable and difficult to predict. By contrast, Gray
Rhinos are foreseeable, high-impact events that we choose to ignore because they’re complex, inconvenient
and/or fortified by perverse incentives that encourage the status quo. Climate change is a powerful example
of a charging Gray Rhino.
In U.S. healthcare, we are now seeing what happens when a Gray Rhino and a Black Swan collide.
Arguably, the nation’s public health defenses should anticipate global pandemics and apply resources
systematically to limit disease spread. This did not happen with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, COVID-19 hit the public healthcare infrastructure suddenly and hard. This forced hospitals and health systems to dramatically reduce elective surgeries, lay off thousands and significantly change care delivery with the adoption of new practices and services like telemedicine.
In comparison, many see the current American hospital business model as a Gray Rhino that has been charging toward
unsustainability for years with ever-building momentum.
Even with massive and increasing revenue flows, hospitals have long struggled with razor-thin margins, stagnant payment rates and costly technology adoptions. Changing utilization patterns, new and disruptive competitors, pro-market regulatory rules and consumerism make their traditional business models increasingly vulnerable and, perhaps, unsustainable.
Despite this intensifying pressure, many hospitals and health systems maintain business-as-usual practices because transformation is so difficult and costly. COVID-19 has made the imperative of change harder to ignore or delay addressing.
For a decade, the transition to value-based care has dominated debate within U.S. healthcare and absorbed massive strategic,
operational and financial resources with little progress toward improved care outcomes, lower costs and better customer service. The hospital-based delivery system remains largely oriented around Fee-for-Service reimbursement.
Hospitals’ collective response to COVID-19, driven by practical necessity and financial survival, may accelerate the shift to value-based care delivery. Time will tell.
This series explores the repositioning of hospitals during the next five years as the industry rationalizes an excess supply of acute care capacity and adapts to greater societal demands for more appropriate, accessible and affordable healthcare services.
It starts by exploring the role of the marketplace in driving hospital consolidation and the compelling need to transition to value-based care delivery and payment models.
COVID’s DUAL SHOCKS TO PATIENT VOLUME
Many American hospitals faced severe financial and operational challenges before COVID-19. The sector has struggled to manage ballooning costs, declining margins and waves of policy changes. A record 18 rural hospitals closed in 2019. Overall, hospitals saw a 21% decline in operating margins in 2018-2019.
COVID intensified those challenges by administering two shocks to the system that decreased the volume of hospital-based activities and decimated operating margins.
The first shock was immediate. To prepare for potential surges in COVID care, hospitals emptied beds and cancelled most clinic visits, outpatient treatments and elective surgeries. Simultaneously, they incurred heavy costs for COVID-related equipment (e.g. ventilators,PPE) and staffing. Overall, the sector experienced over $200 billion in financial losses between March and June 20204.
The second, extended shock has been a decrease in needed but not necessary care. Initially, many patients delayed seeking necessary care because of perceived infection risk. For example, Emergency Department visits declined 42% during the early phase of the pandemic.
Increasingly, patients are also delaying care because of affordability concerns and/or the loss of health insurance. Already, 5.4 million people have lost their employer-sponsored health insurance. This will reduce incremental revenues associated with higher-paying commercial insurance claims across the industry. Additionally, avoided care reduces patient volumes and hospital revenues today even as it increases the risk and cost of future acute illness.
The infusion of emergency funding through the CARES Act helped offset some operating losses but it’s unclear when and even whether utilization patterns and revenues will return to normal pre-COVID levels. Shifts in consumer behavior, reductions in insurance coverage, and the emergence of new competitors ranging from Walmart to enhanced primary care providers will likely challenge the sector for years to come.
The disruption of COVID-19 will serve as a forcing function, driving meaningful changes to traditional hospital business models and the competitive landscape. Frankly, this is long past due. Since 1965, Fee-for-Service (FFS) payment has dominated U.S. healthcare and created pervasive economic incentives that can serve to discourage provider responsiveness in transitioning to value-based care delivery, even when aligned to market demand.
Telemedicine typifies this phenomenon. Before COVID, CMS and most health insurers paid very low rates for virtual care visits or did not cover them at all. This discouraged adoption of an efficient, high-value care modality until COVID.
Unable to conduct in-person clinical visits, providers embraced virtual care visits and accelerated its mass adoption. CMS and
commercial health insurers did their part by paying for virtual care visits at rates equivalent to in-person clinic visits. Accelerated innovation in care delivery resulted.
THE COMPLICATED TRANSITION TO VALUE
Broadly speaking, health systems and physician groups that rely almost exclusively on activity-based payment revenues have struggled the most during this pandemic. Vertically integrated providers that offer health insurance and those receiving capitated payments in risk-based contracts have better withstood volume losses.
Modern Healthcare notes that while provider data is not yet available, organizations such as Virginia Care Partners, an integrated network and commercial ACO; Optum Health (with two-thirds of its revenue risk-based); and MediSys Health Network, a New Yorkbased NFP system with 148,000 capitated and 15,000 shared risk patients, are among those navigating the turbulence successfully. As the article observes,
…providers paid for value have had an easier time weathering the storm…. helped by a steady source of
income amid the chaos. Investments they made previously in care management, technology and social
determinants programs equipped them to pivot to new ways of providing care.
They were able to flip the switch on telehealth, use data and analytics to pinpoint patients at risk for
COVID-19 infection, and deploy care managers to meet the medical and nonclinical needs of patients even
when access to an office visit was limited.
Supporting this post-COVID push for value-based care delivery, six former leaders from CMS wrote to Congress in
June 2020 calling for providers, commercial insurers and states to expand their use of value-based payment models to
encourage stability and flexibility in care delivery.
If value-based payment models are the answer, however, adoption to date has been slow, limited and difficult. Ten
years after the Affordable Care Act, Fee-for-Service payment still dominates the payer landscape. The percentage of
overall provider revenue in risk-based capitated contracts has not exceeded 20%
Despite improvements in care quality and reductions in utilization rates, cost savings have been modest or negligible.
Accountable Care Organizations have only managed at best to save a “few percent of Medicare spending, [but] the
amount varies by program design.”
While most health systems accept some forms of risk-based payments, only 5% of providers expect to have a majority
(over 80%) of their patients in risk-based arrangements within 5 years.
The shift to value is challenging for numerous reasons. Commercial payers often have limited appetite or capacity for
risk-based contracting with providers. Concurrently, providers often have difficulty accessing the claims data they need
from payers to manage the care for targeted populations.
The current allocation of cost-savings between buyers (including government, employers and consumers), payers
(health insurance companies) and providers discourages the shift to value-based care delivery. Providers would
advance value-based models if they could capture a larger percentage of the savings generated from more effective
care management and delivery. Those financial benefits today flow disproportionately to buyers and payers.
This disconnection of payment from value creation slows industry transformation. Ultimately, U.S. healthcare will not
change the way it delivers care until it changes the way it pays for care. Fortunately, payment models are evolving to
incentivize value-based care delivery.
As payment reform unfolds, however, operational challenges pose significant challenges to hospitals and health
systems. They must adopt value-oriented new business models even as they continue to receive FFS payments. New
and old models of care delivery clash.
COVID makes this transition even more formidable as many health systems now lack the operating stamina and
balance sheet strength to make the financial, operational and cultural investments necessary to deliver better
outcomes, lower costs and enhanced customer service.
MARKET-DRIVEN CONSOLIDATION AND TRANSFORMATION
Full-risk payment models, such as bundled payments for episodic care and capitation for population health, are the
catalyst to value-based care delivery. Transition to value-based care occurs more easily in competitive markets with
many attributable lives, numerous provider options and the right mix of willing payers.
As increasing numbers of hospitals struggle financially, the larger and more profitable health systems are expanding
their networks, capabilities and service lines through acquisitions. This will increase their leverage with commercial
payers and give them more time to adapt to risk-based contracting and value-based care delivery.
COVID also will accelerate acquisition of physician practices. According to an April 2020 MGMA report, 97% of
physician practices have experienced a 55% decrease in revenue, forcing furloughs and layoffs15. It’s estimated the
sector could collectively lose as much as $15.1 billion in income by the end of September 2020.
Struggling health systems and physician groups that read the writing on the wall will pro-actively seek capital or
strategic partners that offer greater scale and operating stability. Aggregators can be selective in their acquisitions,
seeking providers that fuel growth, expand contiguous market positions and don’t dilute balance sheets.
Adding to the sector’s operating pressure, private equity, venture investors and payers are pouring record levels of
funding into asset-light and virtual delivery companies that are eager to take on risk, lower prices by routing procedures
and capture volume from traditional providers. With the right incentives, market-driven reforms will reallocate resources
to efficient companies that generate compelling value.
As this disruption continues to unfold, rural and marginal urban communities that lack robust market forces will
experience more facility and practice closures. Without government support to mitigate this trend, access and care gaps
that already riddle American healthcare will unfortunately increase.
WINNING AT VALUE
The average hospital generates around $11,000 per patient discharge. With ancillary services that can often add up to
more than $15,000 per average discharge. Success in a value-based system is predicated on reducing those
discharges and associated costs by managing acute care utilization more effectively for distinct populations (i.e.
This changes the orientation of healthcare delivery toward appropriate and lower cost settings. It also places greater
emphasis on preventive, chronic and outpatient care as well as better patient engagement and care coordination.
Such a realignment of care delivery requires the following:
A tight primary care network (either owned or affiliated) to feed referrals and reduce overall costs through
better preventive care.
A gatekeeper or navigator function (increasingly technology-based) to manage / direct patients to the most
appropriate care settings and improve coordination, adherence and engagement.
A carefully designed post-acute care network (including nursing homes, rehab centers, home care
services and behavioral health services, either owned or sufficiently controlled) to manage the 70% of
total episode-of-care costs that can occur outside the hospital setting.
An IT infrastructure that can facilitate care coordination across all providers and settings.
Quality data and digital tools that enhance care, performance, payment and engagement.
Experience with managing risk-based contracts.
A flexible approach to care delivery that includes digital and telemedicine platforms as well as nontraditional sites of care.
Aligned or incentivized physicians.
Payer partners willing to share data and offload risk through upside and downside risk contracts.
Engaged consumers who act on their preferences and best interests.
While none of these strategies is new or controversial, assembling them into cohesive and scalable business models is
something few health systems have accomplished. It requires appropriate market conditions, deep financial resources,
sophisticated business acumen, operational agility, broad stakeholder alignment, compelling vision, and robust
Providers that fail to embrace value-based care for their “attributed lives” risk losing market relevance. In their relentless pursuit of increasing treatment volumes and associated revenues, they will lose market share to organizations that
deliver consistent and high-value care outcomes.
CONCLUSION: THE CHARGING GRAY RHINO
America needs its hospitals to operate optimally in normal times, flex to manage surge capacity, sustain themselves
when demand falls, create adequate access and enhance overall quality while lowering total costs. That is a tall order
requiring realignment, evolution, and a balance between market and policy reform measures.
The status quo likely wasn’t sustainable before COVID. The nation has invested heavily for many decades in acute and
specialty care services while underinvesting, on a relative basis, in primary and chronic care services. It has excess
capacity in some markets, and insufficient access in others.
COVID has exposed deep flaws in the activity-based payment as well as the nation’s underinvestment in public health.
Disadvantaged communities have suffered disproportionately. Meanwhile, the costs for delivering healthcare services
consume an ever-larger share of national GDP.
Transformational change is hard for incumbent organizations. Every industry, from computer and auto manufacturing to
retailing and airline transportation, confronts gray rhino challenges. Many companies fail to adapt despite clear signals
that long-term viability is under threat. Often, new, nimble competitors emerge and thrive because they avoid the
inherent contradictions and service gaps embedded within legacy business models.
The healthcare industry has been actively engaged in value-driven care transformation for over ten years with little to
show for the reform effort. It is becoming clear that many hospitals and health systems lack the capacity to operate
profitably in competitive, risk-based market environments.
This dismal reality is driving hospital market valuations and closures. In contrast, customers and capital are flowing to
new, alternative care providers, such as OneMedical, Oak Street Health and Village MD. Each of these upstart
companies now have valuations in the $ billions. The market rewards innovation that delivers value.
Unfortunately, pure market-driven reforms often neglect a significant and growing portion of America’s people. This gap has been more apparent as COVID exacts a disproportionate toll on communities challenged by higher population
density, higher unemployment, and fewer medical care options (including inferior primary and preventive care infrastructure).
Absent fundamental change in our hospitals and health systems, and investment in more efficient care delivery and
payment models, the nation’s post-COVID healthcare infrastructure is likely to deteriorate in many American
communities, making them more vulnerable to chronic disease, pandemics and the vicissitudes of life.
Article 2 in our “Future of Hospitals” series will explore the public policy challenges of providing appropriate, affordable and accessible healthcare to all American communities.
We’ve spent the past five months working with our health system members to develop a perspective on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on strategy, discussing what’s changed and what hasn’t, and where leaders should focus moving forward. The above graphic provides an overview of that perspective.
We think about the future across three time periods:
The “near future”, which will largely be dominated by concerns about reopening and recovering clinical operations and financial stability;
The “next future”, which we view as a period of strategic realignment during which we’ll see a “land grab” for advantage among payers, providers, and disruptors;
And the “far future”, in which the fundamental structure of the industry—how healthcare is organized, delivered, and paid for—will see more dramatic changes based on the evolution of economic and policy drivers.
Over time, “market uncertainty” caused by the uncertain course of the disease itself, along with societal and political shifts, will give way to “industry uncertainty”, under which a new competitive landscape will begin to develop.
Across those time horizons, health system strategy should focus on agile and decisive actions to respond to the environment—ensuring a safe and reliable return to normal clinical operations, taking best advantage of the opportunity to play new roles in the delivery of care (e.g., virtual and home-based services), and over time, building a full-scale, consumer-centric care ecosystem.
That’s a lot of rhetoric, but the hard work lies beneath—requiring systems to execute on several key fronts, from ensuring efficient, “systematized” operations, to building sustainable payment and pricing approaches, to adopting a relentless focus on services that earn and maintain consumer loyalty over time. We’ll have more to share on all of these ideas across the coming months, as our work with members continues. What’s clear now is that we’re not going back to the old way of doing things—we’re heading toward a “brave new world” of healthcare delivery.
Healthcare is Hard: A Podcast for Insiders; June 11, 2020
Over the course of nearly 20 years as Chief Research Officer at The Advisory Board Company, Chas Roades became a trusted advisor for CEOs, leadership teams and boards of directors at health systems across the country. When The Advisory Board was acquired by Optum in 2017, Chas left the company with Chief Medical Officer, Lisa Bielamowicz. Together they founded Gist Healthcare, where they play a similar role, but take an even deeper and more focused look at the issues health systems are facing.
As Chas explains, Gist Healthcare has members from Allentown, Pennsylvania to Beverly Hills, California and everywhere in between. Most of the organizations Gist works with are regional health systems in the $2 to $5 billion range, where Chas and his colleagues become adjunct members of the executive team and board. In this role, Chas is typically hopscotching the country for in-person meetings and strategy sessions, but Covid-19 has brought many changes.
“Almost overnight, Chas went from in-depth sessions about long-term five-year strategy, to discussions about how health systems will make it through the next six weeks and after that, adapt to the new normal. He spoke to Keith Figlioli about many of the issues impacting these discussions including:
Two board experts explain how in times of crisis or transformation, the CFO can serve as a rock in the boardroom, a critical arbiter of difficult decisions, and a scout for the future.
Critical business decisions cannot be made unless management teams and boards of directors are on the same page. Transparency, fair and balanced dialogue, and well-structured processes for gaining agreement on strategic plans—these dynamics must be present in every boardroom, in good times and, especially, in bad.
The CFO plays an important role in ensuring that they are.
In crises, such as the global spread of the novel coronavirus, the CFO is best-positioned to provide the most relevant and up-to-date facts and figures, which can help boards find clarity amid chaos. In corporate transformations, the pragmatic, data-focused finance leader is the only one who can prompt the board to actively consider all the short- and long-term consequences of proposed strategy decisions.
Barbara Kux and Rick Haythornthwaite, longtime board directors for multiple global organizations, shared these and other board-related insights with McKinsey senior partner Vivian Hunt in a conversation that spanned two occasions: a gathering of CFOs in London some months ago and, more recently, follow-up phone conversations about the COVID-19 pandemic.
These interviews, which have been condensed and edited here, explained the importance of finance leaders in serving both as scouts for the future and as trusted translators of critical market information.
Rick Haythornthwaite: The board’s most important functions in the wake of COVID-19 are threefold: one is making sure that employees are being treated decently and that the company is taking all the precautions it can. Second is obtaining an objective, insightful understanding of the business and trends. And third is anticipating and preparing for recovery. The key in all three areas is having high-quality data to inform the board’s decisions and to share with employees. Of course, getting data from a market in freefall is never easy. This is where you need CFOs to be absolutely on top of their game.
The board needs to know what is really happening to the top line, what short-term measures can be taken to preserve and boost cash, and all the actions you have to take during the early stage of such events to buy time. But the board must also have a handle on long-term issues.1 And now that we’re months into this crisis, people are starting to draw lessons from previous ones and bringing some historical data into board discussions. The CFO can use these data to construct hard-edge scenarios that prompt good conversations in the boardroom.
Barbara Kux: An important difference in the role of CFOs today, as compared with their role during the financial crisis in 2008, is that they need to simultaneously manage both short-term responsiveness and future recovery. The CFO must keep the ship floating through rough waters—safeguarding employees’ health, securing liquidity, monitoring cash flow and payment terms, ensuring the functioning of the supply chain, assessing effects on P&L and the balance sheet, reviewing customers’ and suppliers’ situations, and initiating cost-reduction programs. That is all very challenging indeed. But then the CFO must also serve as the ship’s scout—watching for key trends that are emerging or that have accelerated as a result of COVID-19, such as digitization and changes in consumer behavior.
The balance between opportunity and risk is being altered substantially for most companies. The CEO could be tempted to profit from immediate demands—“let’s make ventilators, let’s make disinfectants.” The CFO’s job, by contrast, is to point out the differences between quick-to-market options and long-term post-COVID-19 options. These post-COVID-19 options can be an important factor in motivating and engaging employees during these challenging times.
It is also important for the CFO to present the board with reports and pre-reads that paint the entire picture in an objective way, including potential scenarios for the future. That is the only way boards and senior management can take thoughtful and well-founded decisions—first for the recovery and then for a sustainable future for all stakeholders. The word “crisis” has two meanings, one being “danger” and the other being “chance.” Today’s CFO must consider both.
The word ‘crisis’ has two meanings, one being ‘danger’ and the other being ‘chance.’ Today’s CFO must consider both.
Barbara Kux: Outside of crisis periods, studies by INSEAD and McKinsey show, boards spend more than two-thirds of their time on “housekeeping”—financial reporting, compliance, environment, health and safety issues, regulatory issues, and the like. Only about 20 percent is spent on strategy. It is very important for boards to get out of this “compliance cage,” as I call it, and really focus on sustainable value creation. I’m thinking of the board of a leading oil and gas company that did just that. It recognized the importance of sustainable business development early on. The company gained first-mover advantages by diversifying toward a green business, including investing in solar and battery technologies.
At the end of the day, the board is ultimately responsible for the strategy, and the CFO is best-positioned to support strategy discussions. The finance leader can serve as a neutral party among the members of the C-suite, synthesizing their transformation ideas, supplementing them with comprehensive quantitative and qualitative data, and then working with the CEO to bring it all back to the board. This is even more important today to respond to COVID-19–related challenges early on.
Rick Haythornthwaite: The biggest challenge for any CEO, CFO, or other senior leader is to institutionalize new ideas without sucking the life out of them. Each C-suite leader plays a different but important role in this regard. The CFO needs to give transformation initiatives structure and rigor, while the CEO is probably better suited to take on the motivational aspects—for instance, the context for change and definitions of success. The whole team creates the strategy map—the markets and products affected, changes in pricing, the execution plan. But the CFO needs to ensure that the financial and operational underpinnings are there. Even if they are not visible to every single part of the organization, the board can see them through the CFO.
Barbara Kux: To serve as an effective scout, the CFO should establish nonfinancial KPIs, like net promoter and employee-engagement scores, that are critical for the future health and performance of the organization. CFOs should review the strategy process to see that risks and opportunities are being well-assessed. And they can raise the political antennae of the board—accessing global think tanks, for instance, to understand what’s going on in Washington, China, and other important regions or in the medical community. The CEO often is not the most long-term–focused person in the organization; we know this because our financial markets are still very much short-term oriented. The board has to be long-term oriented. The CFO, therefore, must maintain a good balance of both. That might mean introducing a lean-transformation program with a focus on short-term results while, at the same time, contributing to the definition and implementation of a sustainable strategy for the company to emerge strong from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rick Haythornthwaite: Boards need CEOs who can handle multiple truths, who can be expansive in thinking, and who can live comfortably in the future and bring the company along for the ride. The CFO also needs to be a protagonist in the boardroom, but from a different base: you can’t move to the future until you are anchored in the present. The CFO provides that anchor. Having a balance between future and present, between CEO and CFO, is important. The board wants to feel that there is strategic momentum—but also that the company is not just heading off on a journey of delusion.
Barbara Kux: It is important for the CEO and CFO to get on well, but their relationship should not be too close. It is better for the CFO to be objective, even if that sometimes leads to constructive conflicts. At times the CEO defaults to presenting only the positive in the boardroom, which makes it harder for the CFO to play back a more objective story. But that is very much the role of CFOs. They need to raise those early warnings. As a board director, I feel better if the CFO sometimes states, “by the way, we are losing market share here.” It takes a great deal of self-assurance for the CFO to come into the boardroom and say something like that. An independent-minded CFO will always be transparent with the board. A good CEO will always strive to establish an open relationship with the CFO. It is important for the board to motivate this constructive behavior from both executives so it can truly understand what is going well or not so well.
An independent-minded CFO will always be transparent with the board. A good CEO will always strive to establish an open relationship with the CFO.
Rick Haythornthwaite: The senior-management team should not be delivering full solutions to the board at the outset; there should be a period of questions and discussion. The boardroom should be the place for CFOs and boards to engage in the cut and thrust of examination and exploration, with thoughtful planning and framing of dialogues to ensure that decision making is of the highest possible quality.
I’ll give you an example. CFOs used to be able to put traditional capital cases in front of the board about things like investments in plant and equipment, and there was typically a well-grooved dialogue. The kinds of actions they are talking about have changed, though. Think about companies’ investments in platform technologies, which can involve large sums being paid for targets with very low EBITDA—the idea being that value will ultimately come from the combination of entities rather than from a singular target.
Boards may be unfamiliar with such investment cases, so rather than jumping into quick, instinctive type-one decisions forced by the imposition of inappropriate and probably unnecessary time constraints, they will need an education. The board must take time to understand what, in practice, the acquisition of a platform would look like—how it might be scaled under new ownership, how that scaling would affect the bottom line, any risks involved, and so on. This is fundamentally a type-two decision, requiring time and deliberation. The CFO has an important role to play in making sure that this process happens, that it plays out over several board sessions rather than being squeezed into one meeting, and that conversations are grounded in hard numbers.
In the wake of COVID-19, of course, these dialogues may need to happen virtually; the quality of the conversation will still be good, as people are becoming accustomed to virtual meetings.2 They are fine for certain pro-forma tasks, where the issues are well-understood and processes are well-established. But when you’re trying to bring in new voices and new ideas, that’s when you need to be together in the same room.
Barbara Kux: The role of the CFO is so much more expansive than it was even five years ago, including additional responsibility for cyber and digital transformations and for IT initiatives. To get your arms around the role and grow in it, take a step back and look at the company objectively. “What other roles could I play in the company, and how does that overlap with what I am doing now?” “Which initiatives would make the most impact in the company, and how could I realize quick wins in those areas?” Maybe it’s a focus on digital or compliance or export control or political intelligence. The CFO’s professional response to COVID-19 crisis management could be a springboard for future development. Whatever it is, I would identify it and just start. Take any kind of training you can get; read as many business publications as you can. Train yourself in how to deal with activist investors. Step by step, your hat will become bigger.
Rick Haythornthwaite: Whether you are talking about COVID-19 or digital disruption or any other impact on the business, please remember that the board still wants to sleep at night, and when the details are lost, the board will be much less forgiving of CFOs than of CEOs. Don’t forget that part of it. Particularly in this challenging economic environment, it is very important. Chairs and boards? We like to sleep soundly at night.