My social media seems to be flooded lately with all kinds of memes about 2020 finally being over (with hopes that the health crisis will also end), and everyone is happy about it. There are also many hilarious collections of ‘lessons learned,’ an astounding number having something to do with toilet paper.
Since we are just stepping in this new year, it is a good idea to stop and take a look at the most important lessons learned where corporate leadership is concerned. These relevant takeaways will help paint a clearer picture of how leadership needs to evolve to navigate the current situation and deal with what looks to be its rather challenging aftermath.
So here are a few leadership lessons that 2020 has taught us:
1. People need to come first
This has been a corporate catchphrase for a while now, but the last ten months or so have proved that it needs to be more than a company bumper sticker. Employees’ safety and wellbeing have never been more of an issue (in recent times) than in the past year.
It was rather difficult at first to assess the immense impact that working remotely will have. The initial general thought was that it was all going to be for a short time. People were even enthusiastic about it. And then it went on and on, with their children also switching to online school and services becoming scarcer and more difficult to access.
Effective leaders understood that they needed to work harder to accommodate their team members’ changing needs rather than pull for company goals. Flexible schedules, learning on demand, and wellbeing programs become necessities, not just benefits.
2. Customers need to be accommodated
This is also about people — not the ones working for you but the ones the company works for. Customer expectations, possibilities, and priorities shifted, bringing about quite an upheaval in the market.
Leaders had to understand the shifts and find ways to adjust the organizational strategy to keep as close as possible to the initial goals while also being responsive to their clients’ needs.
This was the time to recognize what products and services are truly indispensable to the buyers and which were not. Leaders who knew how to have honest conversations with customers stood out.
3. Communication and empathy are essential
In a world where uncertainty has become the certainty of the day, it’s imperative for leaders to constantly talk to team members and customers as well. Through these conversations, people can make some sense of all that is going on. Radio silence is generally perceived as a bad sign, even more so in stressful circumstances.
Straightforwardness and clarity are absolute musts, as is genuine empathy. Frequent (not necessarily lengthy) communication is best as it acts as a social glue, signaling that what everyone is going through is not an individual but a shared experience.
There’s always strength to be found in numbers, and constant exchanges of information ensure a feeling of community and safety.
4. Objectives did not become irrelevant because they got harder to meet
This was probably the most challenging lesson for leaders this year. It was clear around the end of the first trimester that things will not go as planned, and there was no way to get an exact assessment.
It was all right (and even advisable) to put out small fires and deal with localized issues as they arose for a short time. However, after that initial period of adjustment, it became imperative to re-evaluate the set objectives and find creative paths towards them.
In every important problem, there is also a great opportunity. The organization’s purpose hasn’t changed just because circumstances did, and truly great leaders will find the necessary resources and the means to keep working towards that purpose.
Needless to say, they also need to inspire others to work towards it as well. That is the true mark of leadership.
There’s no denying that 2020 has been a highly challenging year. I have the greatest admiration for everyone who managed to find a silver lining and opportunities for doing something better with themselves. In the corporate world, leaders have had to deal with unprecedented upheaval and take responsibility for steadying shaky situations. While it was nowhere near comfortable, the lessons learned now are invaluable.
Raluca Cristescu is a Faculty of Letters graduate with over ten years of experience in corporate training, focused mainly on soft skills for customer service and direct sales.