ELAINE GRAY is someone who likes to get things done.
You don’t become a partner in one of the biggest offshore law firms, Carey Olsen, without such a perspective. And it’s no different when it comes to her vision for her presidency of the Chamber of Commerce.
With an incisive approach, doubtless informed by a lawyerly methodology, Elaine divides her priorities into two areas – internal and external.
Internal being about house-keeping to ensure structures and systems are up to date as well the Chamber’s strategy.
This in turn will then inform the external area, including the response to issues such as the government’s Revive and Thrive pandemic recovery strategy and supporting working parents.
Why? To drive engagement with members and represent their interests.
Elaine is also passionate about Guernsey’s future and making a positive difference, with Chamber – with almost 700 members employing around 18,000 staff – having a central role in that purposeful mission.
First on the list of priorities is formally updating the Chamber’s organisational structure.
It’s something that hasn’t been done for many years. It might seem like an administrative detail, but Elaine is clear about why it matters.
She explains that providing clarity about who is doing what, within a framework that encompasses practices and standards, will help engage members and represent them better.
‘In terms of the internal thing, each president comes at it with the benefit of their background and experience.
‘So, as a lawyer who deals with employment law, with disputes, with intellectual property, there’s lots of really good business background there, which means that I come into Chamber inevitably looking at the housekeeping.
‘So where are we, what are we going to do?
‘So one of the first things we’re doing is updating our constitutional documents and making sure that they reflect the Chamber that we are now because it’s not really been done for a good number of years.
‘As part of that, it means looking at the changes that Barrie Baxter has done over the past two years to take it away from a really big executive board of about 30 people to a much smaller board – about six plus all of the heads of the various industry and policy groups.
‘It’s worked really well.
‘We have now got terrific engagement with the industry heads, but what I want to do is just formalise all of that and make sure we’ve got all the right housekeeping stuff in place in terms of understanding everyone’s role and responsibility.
‘It sounds quite dull, but actually when you do these things it can help explain and inform your strategy externally,’ says the Chamber president.
‘As part of that we’ve got a planned strategy day where we’re going to sit down with all of our industry groups and just look at where we are.
‘Is the housekeeping done, is it in order? Have we got all the architecture right?
‘But alongside that the external piece of what is our objective, where are we going and are we on the right path?
‘And how do we prioritise, because we have a range of different groups with different interests.’
Ensuring Chamber has ‘joined up’ structures and strategy, she adds, means that external work will be better informed and enhanced for the benefit of members and the island more widely.
Elaine is also keen to build on work by her predecessor Barrie Baxter and Chamber executive director Kay Leslie in further building membership and increasing the level of collaboration with other business groups to support Guernsey’s economic and social wellbeing. As well as Guernsey groups, this includes looking to develop the relationship with Chambers in Jersey and the Isle of Man to learn from what they do and work together on issues of commonality. Again, this is to drive membership engagement and represent them better – ensuring the voice of business is heard.
The States of Guernsey’s pandemic recovery plan is highlighted as a key area where Elaine stresses the importance of Chamber engaging externally. She also adds a healthy dose of realism into the Revive and Thrive vision.
‘It’s very aspirational. It’s actually quite hard to disagree with much of what is there, which is not to criticise it. It’s just to note that there is a lot of detail to follow. We very much want to be right at the heart of that process, hammering out the detail having done our strategy – making clear what we think the government should focus on and how they should do it, and who can help them in that process.’
We move on to Guernsey’s general election in October and what politicians should be thinking about in the run-up.
In her response, Elaine reflects on the streamlined decision-making structure that has been in place during the pandemic.
‘I would encourage the politicians to try and avoid letting political process become an obstacle. I think it has become an obstacle to progress in many ways. I’m not saying cabinet government for example or executive government is necessarily the answer. But, as a matter of fact, the Civil Contingencies operating model worked well during the outbreak and it may be there are lessons that could be learned from that. Because there did seem to be, very swiftly after the return to the Guernsey bubble normality, a sense that the political process was again becoming weighed down in lots of lengthy debates, lots of amendments, a degree of functional politics and of course that’s inevitable and of course it’s the system that we’ve got. But we need that process to streamline and we need it to be a little bit less perhaps navel-gazing because it feels as though sometimes the States almost exists in its own microcosm. It just needs to be kept much more looped back into the real world of Guernsey PLC across every sector.’
Support for working parents
Improved support for working parents can also make a positive difference, according to Elaine.
‘I’ve been here for 14 years and I’ve lived in other jurisdictions including Scotland and the Cayman Islands.
‘One of the things that I found very hard coming to Guernsey was the sense that the infrastructure didn’t necessarily support the working parent demographic as well as it could do.
‘There are lots of small changes that can make a big difference to make sure that we have the right policies of population management to allow the necessity microcosm; the relationships that together feed in to meet Guernsey a successful prosperous economic place,’ she said. ‘So that we make sure that if you need people before school hours and after school hours, that we have things there.
‘But do we have the bus timetables right to make sure we accommodate parents.
‘Could the schools open earlier and close later so that it matches better to the working day or could things be done more flexibly whether it be in terms of opening or closing times, or term times?
‘It sounds quite humdrum, but actually given the huge number of working parents that we’ve got, it just feels to me that there’s scope there to make things better.
‘And in so doing, partly help with things like the unemployment stats and help with things like rescaling and upskilling – so some of the work that for example Susie Crowder’s group [Bright Futures] are doing in terms of looking at the whole demographic and getting people into lots of different roles.
‘When you start to think about it, there are lots of other people who, from a wellbeing perspective, if they can help plug in, we’re hopefully helping the overall health and wellbeing of Guernsey PLC. And of course, all of that plays into prosperity, and wellbeing and making Guernsey as Gavin St Pier [the president of Policy & Resources) said, the best place to live and work.’
Improved dialogue on how to take forward discrimination legislation is also noted by Elaine, who is committed to sensible and proportionate implementation of the law.
Elaine acknowledges that the island could be in for a bumpy economic ride in the coming months in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The finance sector has shielded us economically, she says, and will continue to do so.
But if near neighbours, and the UK in particular, catch an economic fever the effects will be felt here too.
That includes potential negative effects on unemployment.
Critically, though, she says that the island is resilient and will get through it – with Chamber there to support people and its members through these turbulent times.
That optimistic outlook also extends to the fallout from any post-Brexit deal or otherwise between the UK and EU – which she describes as an opportunity.
‘We have always adapted and survived. We’re not necessarily risk takers as much as Jersey, but actually prudent risk taking is fine and has always served Guernsey well.
‘It’s always been quite innovative. I don’t think Brexit poses as much fear as has perhaps been portrayed.
‘I think already, the new normal is not being in the EU and it’s not having any demonstrable impact at the moment on business.
‘The short answer is that we will all just adapt and survive, and hopefully thrive.’
And in a concluding comment that brings us full circle about getting things done, Elaine says: ‘Carpe diem, let’s get on with it.’