Leading through 2021 – more pivoting!

January 27 2021

What, more pivoting??

Some colleagues felt ‘pivot’ was one of our over-used words in 2020. In fact, one named it their least favourite 2020 word (mine was ‘seeding’, awfully overdone by politicians in particular).

But if 2020 was indeed the year to pivot, what is 2021 to be?

Of course for a start, it depends on the circumstances for any person, business, organisation or nation. Consider:

  • The volatility of operating environments.
  • The susceptibility of changes to funding or income streams.
  • The alterations you chose or had to make to product, services or systems, to survive 2020.
  • How much more change is possible to the above (if the limits to that are too great, it’s close down, and/or an entirely new business).
  • What’s going to happen in your market moving forward?

More VUCA than ever

2020 was surely a classic year of VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

Uncertainty is different to risk, which can be estimated and ‘managed’. Uncertainty is more about the very much unknown. Uncertainty persists into 2021 – we really don’t know what the future entails in terms of factors such as:

  • Government funding priorities, for you and me, for big business, for specific budgets…
  • International travel limitations are having massive job impacts in some sectors in Australia, with major growth: eg. in high-end consulting and financial advisory services, and major declines: eg. in travel, conferencing, events, hospitality.
  • Lack of incoming internationals is of course meaning major rethinks for businesses reliant on such – eg. in Victoria’s Great Ocean Road communities.
  • The containment/spread of Covid variations, and the effectiveness of vaccines.
  • And much more … without even considering other global factors like climate change, incredible new technologies, and so on!

Are there ANY certainties?

  • In countries such as Australia, there will be some level of ongoing shift from cities to regions.
  • Work From Home will continue to be accessed by a significant proportion of the workforce.
  • Workplace redesign will be a major new focus for many organisations.
  • It does appear that interest rates will remain low, although the unexpectedly high levels of consumer confidence could even impact on that!
  • There will be massive limits to international travel.
  • And, dare I say, the Tokyo Olympics will not go ahead!!!

So ultimately, what was 2020 about?

Last year; phase one of this massive shift in how we live and work, was often about Survival, and some lessons from leaders include these:

  • At the height of the pandemic and in the depths of lockdown it’s been about ‘getting by’ – rolling out the next great product came a distant last behind just keeping on, delivering essential services, implementing safe operating measures for customers, staff, and communities.
  • The hallmarks of successful leadership through this acute phase were adaptability, frequent communication – with staff, suppliers, regulators and shareholders – and speedy responses to shifting scenarios on multiple fronts.
  • This wasn’t the place for the classical lone hero / heroine: the only way leaders could make the right calls was by working closely with their team.
  • High levels of transparency mattered; it was important and impactful to share information freely and widely, including being able to say “…we don’t know”.

So, to 2021…

This year; phase 2 is about Re-inventing, if it hasn’t been done already (and probably even for those who think they’ve got it covered).

What the future looks like is a big unknown. We don’t know when and how we’re going to come out of this and reach a new normal. but its likely that some keys include:

  • Ongoing agility – building the ability to respond to change, without knowing what the changes might be,
  • Openness – maintaining an open style that does not pretend to know all the answers.
  • Cautious optimism – even Daniel Goleman (noted proponent of EI) said recently that many of the things we are experiencing— rising unemployment, millions of deaths, climate change, and coming to terms with the depth and prevalence of systemic racism—won’t be solved just by thinking positive. However, as Goleman also says, a positive outlook is essential now, perhaps more than ever.

Returning to the old normal will not be possible:

  • Organisations must now redefine their strategy in the context of new information,
  • Internally, a new focus on wellbeing is going to be critical, or ongoing burnout will damage and even destroy organisations from the inside,
  • There is an opportunity to pursue a real cultural transformation in how organisations are run, including a more inclusive, purposeful approach.

Ethics and emotional intelligence come to the fore in leadership:

  • Old ‘control’ styles (aka bullying at the extreme end of the spectrum) of leadership and management have had their day. Cleanaway has just provided another case in point, with CEO Vik Bansal first agreeing to being mentored and monitored, and then ultimately resigning, following a series of ethical blunders (including an infamous dummy-spit over underperforming whiteboard pens in a meeting room!) that the board finally accepted had outweighed the business’s stellar financial performance under his guidance of recent years.
  • The success of women as founders in gaining support from investors, and women being appointed into senior roles in more traditional male areas like engineering and tech, points again to the recognition of factors such as EI.

The massive importance of crafting a new strategy – in the words of McKinsey senior partner Chris Bradley in AFR recently, confirming that the time for pivoting is indeed not yet done, suggesting that:

  • 2021 is the year of the pivot (yep, another one!).
  • If you don’t move your plan in 2021 (that’s different to planning your move), someone else will. You’ll be left behind.

2021 – Compressed strategy; humility

What Bradley recommends in terms of strategy, is looking at 2021 as not one year but four quarters – and trying to fit four years into one. This will mean working through a planning cycle at a much faster rate than ever before.

And I think he is onto it when he says: “We’ve got to go into 2021 with a lot of humility.”

Yep, I’ll be aiming to keep these well in mind in life and work this year. We are so fortunate (a generalisation of course) in this country, and we’re as well positioned as we can be for a good year ahead, with many positives to come out of the troubles of 2020 if we work together on it.