The year 2020 gave us numerous challenges and a host of learning opportunities along with it if you were paying attention. With pain often comes growth and a framework for moving forward, ready to tackle the next round of difficulties.

February is Plant the Seeds of Greatness month and we believe there is much to be learned from past experiences, whether good or bad.

As we reflected on the events that evolved last year and the subsequent responses, we recognized an overarching theme of transformation. Leaders were pushed and pulled across businesses and communities at a rapid pace, forcing them to respond with actions that could support short-term needs while still mindful of longer-term strategic goals.

This hotbed of activity and critical learning has morphed into a renewed focus for leaders and organizations hoping to embrace the best of the crises and apply it to the next year.

No matter what role you play or where that role is, there are critical elements of leadership that have now evolved and must be adopted by anyone who hopes to be a stronger and more successful leader.

Below are the top trends or directions we see leadership evolving as they seek to respond to future disruptions proactively.

1.   Incorporate a Transformational Mindset

Let’s begin with getting our minds in a place of transformation. No progress comes if we are reluctant to face the mistakes and weaknesses uncovered during a crisis. Failures and missteps happened everywhere because none of us had endured such a disruption before.

Now we can look to the lessons learned and pivot how we approach new challenges intending to look ahead. Last year’s big gift was that it showed us much of what we were doing simply no longer works. We leaped into accelerating many things to keep our businesses running and competitive.

Digital transformation was an enormous focus for the year. Leaders worked across the enterprise to mobilize their entire workforce in a matter of days, something that would have been unheard of just months before. This digitalization of the workforce was one of those significant efforts that organizations should have acted on before the year’s events, but now are imperative for moving forward and staying competitive. That takes a transformational mindset to rethink operating models and the needs of the business.

2.   Build Resilience

Last year tested our capability to respond, recover, and thrive like it’s never been tried before. In any split second, leaders had to shift operating models, rebuild supply chains, integrate new technologies, and care for their clients and employees alike.

In every nuance of an organization, ensuring we can rapidly adjust, adopt, and adapt for any change, crisis, or disruption that emerges is the difference between failure and success. But now, success means thriving in new and innovative ways to build a sustainable business that outperforms competitors while supporting a greater purpose.

Entities that can take the recent ideas and experiences to transform their organizations into cultures of resilience will respond and rebound with greater ease, often leading to innovation.

3.   Remain Agile

You can’t build a resilient organization if you aren’t agile. A leader must learn to be nimble and flex when the circumstances require. When we are mired in analysis and red tape, we fail to make a timely decision and take action at optimal moments.

As leaders today, we have to assume change and disruption are standard. With that assumption, we must exercise our agility muscle just like any other. Getting comfortable with ambiguity and risk can go a long way as we embrace a leadership style that can rapidly course-correct as circumstances negate.

This agility becomes invaluable as we meet the evolution of innovation and competition that’s yet to come.

4.   Redefine/Reinforce Culture

As top leaders and employees share their stories of what worked within the crisis and what did not, they consistently speak to the culture. A well-defined and nurtured culture enhances the odds that a business or community can rebound from massive change or disruption.

It’s essential for business leaders to examine their existing culture and make their assessment carefully. Did the current ethos underscore the organization’s ability to meet the moment head-on, or did it barely survive, leaving its members feeling frustrated and lost?

Taking measures now to examine the culture and the core values it’s built from is a significant first step. Look at what employees and other leaders valued and exemplified during the chaos and identify potential new anchors and defining characteristics that underscore the desired culture.

When reviewing the culture, see if what you have defined marries with your employees’ behaviors and actions. If culture and experience do not match, there is work to be done.

Don’t forget to speak with your employees or those you are leading. Listen to what they are saying about the culture and whether it mirrors the intent. Look for their input on improvements and put a plan in place. Share progress and commit to doing better.

5.   Focus on Trust

The past year’s disruption included rounds of conflicting messages, numerous breakdowns in supply chains, massive confusion, and chaos of operational model shifts, all resulting in a significant loss in confidence by employees and customers.

This prolonged upheaval has now left us all to pick ourselves up, brush off the dust, and figure out how we regain that confidence and trust.

The most successful leaders will ensure a renewed focus on trust, both inside and outside their domain areas is part of their transformation strategy. Seeking tactics that reengage with critical stakeholders and build confidence in supporting and responding to business needs will drive many key decisions in the coming year.

Placing a focus on rebuilding and strengthening trust is vital to the investment of time, attention, and resources. Any attempt to advance the organization without trust as a core pillar would be a wasted effort.

6.   Embrace Diversity and Inclusivity

Along with the global pandemic, the lack of racial equality surfaced, with millions taking to the streets to protest the injustices. This powerful movement spotlighted the need across business, community, academia, and government to instill more direct and meaningful diversity and inclusivity policies, processes, and programs ensuring a more varied and diverse level of talent, skill, and thinking.

This historic moment in time cannot be met with another brush under the rug hoping that voices will diminish. Leading with the promise of more diversity and inclusion will become table stakes. Reverting to homogenous hiring and employment strategies is simply unacceptable.   

Employees want to work for organizations that support the diversity of all kinds. Customers demand enterprises of all types adhere to variety across every aspect of the business. From hiring to suppliers and anyone else within the organizational ecosystem, inclusivity is the name of the game.

7.   Improve the Employee Experience

After everything our employees have been through, they are exhausted and cautious. We built out accommodations on the fly to meet the crisis’s needs, and now we need to readdress the strategy and vision along with sustainable technology, programs, policies, and processes to support them in the longer term.

That strategy needs to start with improving the overall employee experience. We have to assume that the virtual workforce will take on a more permanent, hybrid model. Reviewing how we can enhance or drastically improve that experience becomes a priority if we’re to keep the lights on. Examining every aspect of the employee experience means shifting our thinking in how they now function in every part of every day.

A large part of our revised thinking means we have to reassess the talent pool and support professional development and growth. Employees may not progress in the same manner as they once did and likely require new attention that reinforces the importance placed on learning and development.

Finally, leaders will need to review the available benefits and perks for employees. Those little things that made coming into the office a bit more tolerable may no longer apply. Free lunch, happy hours, or gyms are now useless. How can we replace such perks with new employee benefits that are more meaningful in the new world? The same goes for the formal employee benefits within an employment package. Where can we align those with a new workforce model to make up for anything lost?

8.   Reinvent the Customer Experience

Lastly, we need to rethink our customer experience. From initial engagement to a long-term client, we have to examine every touchpoint and response. With the consumerization of business, the dynamic has shifted.

Leaders need to look at how interaction is different. Does the in-person support disappear entirely, or has it simply been altered to accommodate a reduced interaction? How can we make it seamless and pain-free while potentially improving on the experience they had before? What are we hearing from customers, and how are they driving response?

We have to review and assess every channel of interaction to rebuild a new experience potentially. That covers social media, email, website, text, phone, and in-person interactions, and it means thinking more digitally across mobile, desktop, and tablets.

The entire customer experience needs upgrading, and it has to be consistent, seamless, and timely.

These are just some of the primary lessons we’ve seen born from the crises of 2020. The most successful leaders are those that are more intuitive and embrace change in all its forms. They bring new ideas to the table and welcome disruption knowing from it comes more remarkable and meaningful transformation.