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FIVE THINGS WE LEARNED IN 2020

Some of the best thinking and advice that resonated through a unique year

A few months ago we published series of cards to use as navigational buoys as leaders and their teams led through this year. We hoped that the questions would open up good dialogue, give people a chance to share their perspectives and experiences, and provide a bit of a rudder during these challenging times.


Some really interesting themes have surfaced and resurfaced since then. Some represent new thinking. Others represent things that we’ve known all along and either needed to be reinforced or brought back to the front of our minds. While we pride ourselves on coming up with good questions, we thought it appropriate to share some possible answers. Well, maybe not answers, specifically, but insights that we thought might be helpful.



#1: Move The Rock.

On difficult days, leaders can sometimes become more focused on observing and sizing up the problem rather than taking action. They might be seeking a picture of the “ultimate right answer” versus what’s really needed right now. The whole idea of “new normal” arose from this thinking...painting a static picture and set of goals. Other companies set the idea of a “new normal” aside, focusing instead on a “next normal”, then the “next normal after that”, and so forth. By “moving the rock”, they made steady progress, focused more surgically on pressing priorities, and took advantage of the chance to continually build momentum for moving in the right direction.



#2: Let Your Leaders Lead.

For all kinds of reasons (good and not-so-much), companies put lots of processes in place. They can be awesome, creating heightened levels of effectiveness, consistency, and sustainability. On the other hand, too much process can have the opposite of a streamlining effect...resulting in cumbersome “administrivia”, deferred decision-making, and an environment where lots of energy is spent “checking the checker”. In crisis, a more urgent level of trust gets deployed. You need to lean into the training, development, and experiences you’ve provided everyone around you. Those investments that were either made or got traded-off show their true value. Fewer committees get formed. Critical questions are asked and non-critical debates are discouraged. People rely on each other to use good judgment and make the right calls. If something goes wrong, people come together to find new solutions instead of revisiting the past. Delegation and empowerment become more than trendy buzzwords that are often spoken but not-so-often granted. In short, leaders lead at the right level, do the jobs they have been called upon to do, and get lots of great work done.



#3: Look Up and Look Ahead

While taking the necessary time to manage the day-to-day (or in some cases, the hour-to-hour), it’s critical to not lose sight of longer-term. While some are “moving the rock”, others need to be forecasting and planning, ensuring that the company not get too far off course from purpose and strategic objectives, even while weathering the current storms. Doing so builds a rudder of resilience and creates the gritty optimism for the work immediately at hand...providing some answers to the “why are we bothering with this?” mindset that can weigh down people in crisis.



#4: Encourage Empathy

Smart leaders reminded themselves and each other that the pandemic was not a “one-size-fits-all” period of time for people. Aside from masks and hand sanitizers and six-foot-distancing, life events continued. Weddings and wakes took place. Some people enjoyed a new freedom from routine while others felt isolated and a bit lost. Casual in-person connections became one-dimensional head-and-shoulder shots on a computer screen. Once better days return, these smart leaders intend to not lose sight of all the different worlds the people around them might be experiencing. They are going to spend a lot less time judging and inferring and writing their own chapters about others. Instead, they are going to turn up their listening, their humility, their curiosity, their encouragement, and their gratitude.



#5: Stand Still for a Second

For lots of high-achieving leaders, a sense of chaos fuels adrenaline. There’s a rush that sometimes comes from the firefighting aspects of running toward what’s most difficult. Due to both the intensity and the longevity of the pandemic, this energy really got tested. The desire to sprint to solutions wore people out eventually. That fatigue was best addressed by pulling people together to engage, think, and create a shared best thinking. From that, energy was better channeled, solutions more sustainably applied, and a better balance between sacrifice and renewal was restored.



As we all continue to weather these days, we’d encourage you to try and capture some of yours. It doesn’t have to be overly structured or formal or profound. Jot down a thought on your phone. Grab a post-it note. Say something out loud to someone.


While unique circumstances might have been the catalyst for a new way of working in the interim, there are a lot of lessons that will be worth taking note of for many years to come.



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