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2020 was a year like none other, forever changing how we live and work. But with disruption also comes opportunity.  Here are three trends you can capitalize on as you lead your business and navigate an evolving marketplace in 2021.

Trend #1: The urgency of innovation


Despite the obvious challenges it brought, COVID also sparked some good things. One very notable development was the fading of leaders' aversion to risk while a sense of urgency for change took hold. As the impacts of the pandemic spread, we saw businesses begin to break free from the old ways of thinking and doing to find new and innovative ways to succeed, all in record time.

 

While some companies made minor shifts in a few days, such as developing an online presence, others made wholesale change that included launching new products or services in a matter of weeks. In less than a year, entire industries such as video meeting platforms and telemedicine were turbocharged.

 

No matter what industry you're in, you have a once-in-a-lifetime chance right now to rethink how you get things done. Thanks to a marketplace that is more open than ever before to new ideas, you have a window of opportunity to:

  • Accelerate implementation on your long-term vision for growth
  • Set inspiring goals that prioritize innovative thinking
  • Make different decisions around talent and resource allocation
  • Create a "culture of try" that fosters more diverse thinking and calculated risk-taking.

 

This urgency of innovation will help your company evolve faster and find new avenues for growth.

 

Taking action


Here's how you can seize the opportunity around innovation.

  • Take some time to reflect on what worked in 2020 that you want to carry forward. Perhaps it was a different way of making decisions, communicating, collaborating or simply getting things done.
  • Write down three things you want to do more of in 2021 to continue innovating in your business.
  • Ask your leadership team to go through the same exercise.  Come together to share ideas and set goals that will ensure an innovation mindset and practices thrives.

Trend #2: Connected leadership


The work-from-home norm of 2020 gave us a rare glimpse into the personal world of our colleagues. We were allowed to peek into their lives, meet their pets and wave at their children. We celebrated birthdays and work anniversaries on Zoom while we also agonized with each other over isolation, social injustice and burnout.

 

The separation between our personal and professional lives is much smaller now, and that will have a significant impact on leaders. There is a new expectation for you to show up differently to meet the needs of your employees. What they want more of is the authentic you – a leader who is open, empathetic and real. Someone who knows how they feel and who allows themselves to be known, too, in good times and bad.

 

I think of this as being a "connected leader" with the ability to form strong bonds that produce better outcomes. Connection can happen in many ways, but it often starts with you demonstrating some specific behaviors such as:

  • Being fully present with talking with others so you can more easily pick up on what someone is thinking and feeling.
  • Offering affirming and supportive comments to let others know you have heard and value them.
  • Sharing aspects of your personal life that make you real and relatable.
  • Not being afraid to admit when you don't know something and inviting others to go on the learning journey as you seek answers.


These types of behaviors will draw your people closer to you and give others permission to be more connected, too.  As a result, you'll enjoy a greater sense of community and trust amongst the team, which will help them pull together in difficult times and rise to a higher level of collective performance overall.

 

Taking action


Here are a few ways you can step into the connected leader role.

  • Shift into a listening mode more often. Ask open-ended questions to allow others to explore their thinking. Give people space and time to share their feelings.
  • Look for opportunities to share a personal story or two during a town hall gathering or small group meeting. Share how those experiences have shaped who you are as a leader. For example, you could reference a favorite hobby, a family pet, or a job you had in your youth and the lessons learned. These stories will allow your team to see you as human and approachable, which will foster a sense of closeness and loyalty to you.
  • Pick three words that define how you want to show up as a more connected leader. Write them down and post them where you will see them every day to inspire your words and actions.

Trend #3: Good business


The events of 2020 have sparked deep reflection among leaders, boards and investors.  Many are listening to stakeholders with a greater appreciation for their concerns about how the world is changing and their expectations for how businesses can drive positive change.  As a result, leaders are taking a closer look at how their organizations can be a greater force for good.

 

This broader view of business' role in society is commonly referred to as "stakeholder capitalism," which is the concept that companies should serve the needs of not just their shareholders, but also their many stakeholders, such as employees and the community. 

 

It's not a new idea. Many companies have for years embraced corporate social responsibility in their philanthropic outreach. More and more, however, businesses are making purpose a core strategy in their business model. And in 2019, the Business Roundtable made a bold move by releasing a statement signed by 181 CEOs who committed to lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders including customers, employees, suppliers, communities and shareholders.

 

Another indicator of this shift in perspective is the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, a survey of more than 30,000 people globally.  The results from the 2020 survey showed a vast majority (92% of respondents) want companies to speak out on issues that impact society, and 74% think CEOs should take the lead. These results were published in January last year before the pandemic and the other unsettling events of the year took place, which would have further cemented these points of view. 

 

Clearly leaders cannot sit on the sidelines when it comes to considering what role they and their companies should play in supporting the greater good.  To do so will put you on your back foot with many stakeholders who expect – and may well demand – for you to become engaged. To remain silent on important issues could lead to customer boycotts of your products, top talent refusing to work for you, or worse yet, a widespread diminishing of trust in your brand that could threaten your company's survival. 

 

The challenge comes in knowing what, when and how to take appropriate action while balancing the need for profits that your business must have to grow and thrive.

 

Taking action


"Purpose + profits" will be the one-two punch that determines who wins the competition for talent, investors and supportive communities. Here are some suggestions for how you can strengthen your company's responsiveness to social change while still delivering results to your bottom line.

  • Seek to understand the attitudes and beliefs of your various stakeholders, starting with your employees and customers. What issues do they care about? What are their expectations for companies like yours? What will it cost you if you don't respond to their needs and interests?
  • Reflect on the mission, vision and values of your company. Why are you in business? How do your operations impact your community? What do you want the company to be known for in the years to come?
  • Consider what part of your company's operations could be run in a more socially responsible manner that could also deliver cost-savings.  For example: Could your facilities be more energy efficient? Are your HR practices fostering a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace that will strengthen your workforce? Can you develop partnerships that would benefit those who are upstream in your supply chain?
  • Invite your employees to engage in the process of determining what the company could do to live by a "purpose + profits" mantra. Ask them to adopt an owner's mindset to drive strategies that will allow the company to do well by doing good.


As you continue planning for 2021 and beyond, I hope these three trends challenge your thinking and bring new opportunities for you to lead with vision as well as confidence. Brighter days are ahead.


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