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2020 is surely a year for the record books. The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered our lives in ways we had never imagined. Many businesses were so severely impacted that they weren’t able to recover, while others found ways to pivot, adapt, and in some cases, innovate in order to survive. My experience leading a company through a global pandemic, in addition to several prior economic recessions, has taught me many lessons that I will carry forward in 2021 and beyond. I’d like to share these recommendations:

1. With high beams on, invest in your infrastructure, both people and technology.

The health and safety of employees must be the top priority for all businesses. During an economic downturn, the first cuts you should consider are those that don’t impact your infrastructure. People are your most important asset, so keep them employed whenever possible. While people come first, the pandemic has heightened our awareness that a solid technology strategy is also imperative. The pandemic forced companies to convert to remote business models overnight, and this was a greater challenge for organizations that weren’t prepared. If you can keep your infrastructure in place during an economic downturn, you will be in a better place when the economy turns around. And, in my experience, the economy has always rebounded.

2. Building and fostering a culture of trust for remote work is important.

In my experience, trust fosters higher productivity, lower turnover, and a healthy work environment. During the pandemic, many employees found themselves grappling with the challenges of balancing work with the demands of homeschooling children or caring for older relatives. If you provide employees the flexibility and trust they need to balance their work and family responsibilities, most will appreciate the gesture and work more efficiently to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. The pandemic has reinforced the importance of staying connected as well as building and fostering a culture of trust and accountability, especially with a remote workforce.

3. As business leaders, it’s important to lead with empathy.

While the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, it has hit some people harder than others. Too many Americans have lost their jobs, and a good number of those who are still employed are also struggling. It is incumbent upon business leaders to understand the struggles of those who work for them and to help them however they can. The best way to do this is to listen to your employees and then take appropriate actions. If they tell you that a lack of time to deal with personal issues has been a problem for them during the pandemic, remedy that with flexible scheduling. If they are fearful about returning to the office during the pandemic, reassure them that they will not be expected to return until it is safe to do so. Developing personal connections and purposeful communications is important, as is supporting employees’ mental health by providing time off, flextime and a balanced workload for those who need it. The genuine concern you show for your employees and their families will go a long way toward reducing their anxiety and increasing their dedication and engagement to the company. Practicing empathy is always important, and helping your employees succeed is simply the right thing to do.

4. Executives must strategically lead through change.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges to businesses and organizations. Leaders who fared best led by turning the challenges they faced into opportunities. Notably, a few were well-positioned to strategically change their organizational and process models to continue meeting the needs of their customers and communities:

  • I was fortunate to have attended an Economic Club of Chicago event in July to hear Dr. Fauci speak. He shared that he and the medical community were tasked with accelerating the development of one or more vaccines without impacting medical integrity or safety. The Coronavirus was not identified until late 2019, yet by January 2020, scientists were already able to sequence the entire novel virus, a crucial step in developing a vaccine. To accomplish this, his team extracted the non-medical, bureaucratic steps out of the development, clinical testing, and approval process for the vaccine. By doing so, less than a year later, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines were both approved for emergency use and the first shots were administered, an unprecedented achievement.
  • One of the pandemic’s success stories is the new-found popularity of Zoom, which experienced an influx of millions of new users. However, Zoom faced many security and privacy complaints as usership skyrocketed from a maximum of 10 million daily users in December of 2019 to more than 200 million daily users by March of 2020. To his credit, Zoom’s CEO, Eric Yuan, recognized the responsibility that came with this unprecedented growth and quickly promised changes to address the issues, which he delivered in August with Zoom’s 5.0 update.1
  • When faced with the reality that movie theaters would likely continue to operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021, Warner Bros. made the unprecedented decision to release every one of its new 2021 movies simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters. According to the CEO of Warner Bros., Ann Sarnoff, “We’re living in unprecedented times which call for creative solutions…”2

To strategically lead through change, leaders must stay vigilant, agile and flexible.

Moving on to 2021

Now that distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine has begun, there is reason to hope that life may soon return to some semblance of “normalcy.” However, I have been inspired by the progress that has been made during the pandemic. Organizations have learned the importance of innovation, building a culture of trust, and empathetic leadership. They are stronger now for having weathered the storm and are better equipped to support their employees, clients and partners. Businesses with this newfound resiliency will be well-positioned to carry forward in 2021.

1Tom Warren, “Zoom Releases 5.0 Update with Security and Privacy Improvements,” The Verge, April 22, 2020.

2Julia Alexander, “Warner Bros. Will Release All of Its New 2021 Movies Simultaneously on HBO Max,” The Verge, December 3, 2020.

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