If you raced to “put a line” through 2020, you missed out on a massive opportunity.
As we limp towards the finish line for what many people viewed as “The year that never was”, it’s fair to say that 2020 was one of the most challenging years we’ve ever faced. However, while I appreciate the fact that many people feel as though they’ve had their wings clipped in 2020… I just can’t share in that sentiment. For me, 2020 was a huge opportunity.
When the downturns hit, I rarely get caught up in the negativity and prefer to focus on the opportunity at hand. The Global Financial Crisis feels like yesterday for many of us in the executive search industry, but thanks to some great advice I received back then, we used that time to forge many of the relationships that formed the cornerstone of our growth over the next ten years. This has also been the case during the pandemic.
When speaking with our people, or the clients and talent we represent, I’ve noticed several trends that have separated those who have forged ahead and made the most out of 2020 and those who languished. It all comes down to “opportunity” – Who took it… and who didn’t.
If you raced to put a line through 2020, here are some of the opportunities you may have missed.
You missed the opportunity to build new and better routines.
High performing executives spent 2020 focused on developing a new rhythm to the way they, and their teams operated. They tested new ways to communicate (in fact some communicated less, to great effect!) and they settled into a new routine. The overload of face-to-face meetings, which were part of the old routine, disappeared and suddenly meetings became a lot more efficient and purposeful (tech issues aside of course). They also used time gained from not having to travel to focus more on their physical well-being and/or to spend more time with family, which had a positive impact.
Before the pandemic struck, I went on a handful of walking meetings with my clients each year. Now I do at least one a day. Some days I spend up to four hours walking, while building relationships and burning a few calories along the way. I did this out of necessity, as social distancing and movement was limited, but it’s something that I’ll keep in my toolkit forever.
You missed the opportunity to get rid of the dead wood.
Clearing the decks was a common theme of 2020 and many senior leaders took the opportunity to reevaluate their structures and capability. However, many did not. A tech company (who shall remain nameless) for example, had a policy of not offering any redundancies through the pandemic. It was a nice gesture, but in my view, a poor decision. Nobody knows how long this pandemic is going to last. As far as I was aware, the staff love working there and there and was no burning platform for anyone to leave. While I understand the value in not “rocking the cultural boat” and potentially hanging on to a few more people than needed, you’ve effectively locked yourself in to holding onto underperformers and that is completely counter intuitive to creating a high-performance culture.
Conversely, Qantas, who suffered perhaps the largest job losses of any industry in Australia, have cleverly reshuffled and renegotiated behind the scenes, ensuring that they’re readying the fleet for a much leaner and stronger business when demand returns. They’ve managed massive redundancies with an honest and humane approach, but make no mistake, they’ve seized an opportunity with the unions.
You missed the opportunity to prove your resilience.
Many people lapsed into periods of despair in 2020. In facing an uncertain future, it’s quite understandable that many people suffered significant anxiety and, with that, a state of inertia.
Before discussing career aspirations with each of my clients, I strongly advocated for getting their physical and mental back on track. After all, you aren’t going to climb any mountains if you can’t put one foot in front of the other. For some, this required taking a big step back and some time off, or a reduction in hours at the very least.
The people who weathered the storm the most effectively were those who embraced ambiguity and chose to look through every challenge as an opportunity. They saw the silver lining in everything. For example; spending more time at home gave many of us an opportunity to spend more time with our family, take up a new hobby, or launch a new business. Others… sadly, squandered this time and their only achievement was binging another show on Netflix.
You missed the opportunity to innovate.
Necessity is the mother of invention. I was both surprised and delighted by those businesses who took this time as an opportunity to pivot, innovate and challenge their “old normal”. A good example of this was Providoor, championed by Chef Shane Delia. His initiative seemingly sprung out of nowhere and not only gave his own restaurant an opportunity to continue serving, but also helped other businesses that were facing serious financial repercussions as a result of the restrictions on in-house dining.
My own business seized on an opportunity to launch a whole new business line; Executive Transitions, during this period. It’s been something I’ve been meaning to tackle for a while and I’m glad we did. With the help of the incomparable Tim Chilvers leading this practice, we’ve achieved tremendous success.
You missed the opportunity to build closer relationships.
Relationships are forged by fire in a time of crisis. The leaders who stepped up where the ones who developed a clear and achievable roadmap for survival or for ongoing growth. They got closer to their CEOs, Boards or their direct reports and peers by positioning themselves as the “level head”, who looked through a prism of optimism and deliberately looked to exploit every opportunity.
Their optimism and resilience were an inspiration to everyone around them and, as a result, they will be forever viewed as a trusted resource who was there, doing the right inputs and making sound decisions when the business was in disarray.
You missed the opportunity to embrace remote working.
Remote working dispersed the workforce and some leaders struggled to build relationships remotely. As a firm, we placed many people during this period who never met their one or two up, or their direct reports and as such, their induction was less than inspiring.
When we look at what people and organisations got wrong, or right, it comes down to communication. Too little, and the employee feels in the dark, on their own and lacking purpose. Too much and they feel their time is being wasted or they are being micro managed. It’s a delicate balance that’s different for everyone. There’s no universal solution that will work for everyone, but the people who did it best encouraged a “one to one” approach and had direct conversations and often erred on the side of over–communication.
Many CEOs are keen to get back to the old way of working. It’s what we grew up with and there’s something comforting around having the troops together. However, it’s inevitable that high performers will want flexible working environments and as much as I personally struggle with that notion, it’s something that smart companies will eventually offer as an employee incentive.
You missed the opportunity to build your personal brand.
With more time on our hands, we had a chance to invest in building our personal networks and building our presence. I was surprised by how few people used this time to build their networks and their personal brands. For many people, the concept of making new relationships was untenable over a Zoom call, so they didn’t bother.
I took this time to invest in building my face to face relationships over Zoom calls, walks, phone calls, all of which I’d done before, but this year I added a new channel, social media. Nobody was more skeptical than me about social media. I actively avoided it. However, I’ve thrown myself into expressing my opinions and writing content and I had to admit, it’s been a cathartic experience and it’s allowed me to reach far more people each day than I can using a telephone.
If you read any of the points outlined above and thought “Yes… I did miss that opportunity”, the good news is that 2021 is just around the corner. I guarantee that it’s going to be another challenging year... so don’t waste the opportunity this time around.