The best thing that can be said about 2020 is that it has been quite a year. A year that has brought volcanic eruptions, floods, fiery blazes across Australia and the United States, race riots, increased violence against women and children and, of course, a global pandemic.
Within these crises sits climate change, political turmoil, and economic volatility. For the leader of any organisation on any continent, these could be comfortably classified as uncertain times. But, according to Karien Bornheim, CEO of FABS, there are lessons within this time that can help leaders make more informed decisions about their businesses, their leadership styles, and their people.
“The harshest lesson perhaps out of all those learned in 2020 is that we need to listen more and be prepared to move quickly,” she says. “Leadership across the public and private sector alike needs to listen to science and prepare for what lies ahead with greater efficiency and foresight. Scientists and healthcare experts predicted the arrival of a pandemic years ago. They raised red flags about the converging crises that would accompany climate change. And nobody listened. Today, we’re looking at a new future as a result.”
Moving forward, organisations need to pay attention to what is being said, put intelligence ahead of quick profit, and recognise the value of people for long-term success. The financial impact of the pandemic and climate change disasters has yet to be tallied and there will always be debate around whether or not this could have been mitigated with better planning, but the combined impact is an opportunity to change age-old dialogues into ones that are more relevant and strategic. Moving forward, leaders should focus on how their organisations approach and react to topical environmental issues as their stances will soon change investor and customer approaches.
“The ethos that an organisation adopts, the value it places on topical issues such as climate change and diversity – these qualities are becoming increasingly commoditised and valued,” adds Bornheim. “They are also qualities that define the type of people that work in an organisation, the kind of talent that your business attracts, and the reputation it garners. The days of paying superficial attention to gender and diversity are long gone – talent has become the key to unlocking both innovation and growth.”
Companies with high staff turnover and poor employee reputations are unlikely to catch the attention of talented and skilled people. And these are in short supply. Employees have spent their time in the pandemic redefining how they are treated, the ways in which they work, and the value they place on their work. This is, in turn, changing how they engage with employers.
“Organisations have either recognised the importance of people during the pandemic, or they have not,” says Bornheim. “Those in the latter camp are likely to struggle over the next few years. People are the reason a company survives a crisis. With more time spent online, less time spent with other people, and increasing work pressures, leadership must change its strategy if it wants to hold onto the talent pool and its business. This means more diverse talent, less gender politics, and better overall behaviour when it comes to treating people equally.”
Another lesson that has emerged from the pandemic comes in one simple word – pivot. It is a lesson that has been repeated by CEOs across the world and one that has defined success stories and dogged failures. Companies have had to completely revisit their approaches thanks to all the complexities introduced by the virus.
Some have not managed to break the mould – some of the world’s most well-known cinema chains have closed their doors because their business models are no longer viable. Others have managed to survive by pivoting into new, and unexpected areas. Airbnb now hosts online experiences for people who want to enjoy other cultures while it waits for its doors to be once again opened for free travel.
“It’s not a simple step, to pivot, but it has become a crucial one for many companies,” concludes Bornheim. “It takes time, it doesn’t necessarily result in an immediate profit, and it is a risk. But as the world moves into what is now being called the ‘next normal’ these pivots can make all the difference between a success story or another victim of the pandemic. Also, and perhaps most importantly, leaders need to remember that one thing remains certain as we move into 2021 – uncertainty.”
Politics, climate change, economic volatility, and COVID-19 will not disappear when the New Year rolls in on 01 January 2021, but hopefully the old ways of working and legacy approaches to gender and diversity will.