2021 is off and running

Kinda like Kevin Berchelmann described a business decision-making style in June’s At C-Level as “Ready, Fire, Aim!,” “On your marks, go, get set… ” is a planning style often used when preparing for the new year just after the nick of time. In past years, that style put us behind the eight ball initially, but we could recover with hard work and good leadership.

Guess what? 2021 won’t be like past years because the 2020 eight ball never stopped rolling. How we start the year depends mostly on our attitude: Is January 1, 2021 the 307th day of March 2020 (feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it?), or are there only 358 shopping days left until Christmas 2021?

Good leaders know that no new year will be like last year – or the year before that or the years before that – and are prepared to deal with the unexpected. An easy measure of that in 2020 is how our long organizations took to go from meetings around the conference room table to virtually in front of a computer screen.

If ever a year was going to start with VUCA, 2021 is it.

Here are some changes we know we’ll have to deal with, so let’s be ready for the unknown:

  • The 117th Congress will be sworn in on January 3, 2021. A new Congress means new rules that will affect our business in new ways. Are we agile enough to pivot?
  • Our competitors will develop new ways of doing business that will give them a marketplace advantage. Do we have processes in place to develop new ways of our own?
  • We’re going to have personnel turnover – some painful and some cause for celebration. Have we prepared by developing successors?

On the other hand, some things that stay the same may still take us by surprise:

  • Political strife isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
  • We still have a global pandemic to deal with.
  • There will be economic uncertainty that will make the stock markets go up and down and affect our businesses.
  • My wife will always get her way when we have a difference of opinion (I’m a leadership consultant; we don’t have conflicts).

Bill George at Harvard Business School writes that a leader’s answer to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity in business can be found in his VUCA 2.0Vision, Understanding, Courage, and Adaptability – all traits of an effective leader.

So, where do we start in 2021? With something else that will be the same: the leadership basics that haven’t changed in a few millennia.

  • First, remember that our success (and the organization’s) depends on the people who work for us being successful. We can never forget who’s work keeps the day-to-day business operating. The majority of our effort should be focused on creating an environment where they can shine.
  • Set clear expectations. The Ambiguity in VUCA often starts with us not defining success for our team. We shouldn’t expect the results we were looking for if they don’t know what success looks like.
  • We can’t effectively lead someone who doesn’t trust us. If we aren’t positive and caring, or don’t have integrity or respect for the individuals who work for us, they will never trust us.
  • We have to get better at communication. Especially now when face-to-face communication is limited, our communication style needs to include a lot more listening than ever before. The people who work for us will have ideas for improvement and innovation long before we do (they probably already have them), so ask… and then listen for understanding to what they say.
  • Leading by example isn’t an option. When things get crazy (like they have been), we can’t expect our team to stay calm and focused if we don’t. We won’t have all the answers (we never have) and shouldn’t be so hesitant to admit it. And DON’T tell people to calm down! That never, ever works; re-focus them instead.

The world as we know it today won’t be the same as the world six months from now. Never has been and never will be. For our companies, it’s important that we hone the leadership skills to deal with the VUCA we are continually thrust into. For our people, it’s imperative that we don’t neglect the leadership basics in the process.

The eight ball’s already rolling. Are you set?

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