There were moments during 2020 when I thought this year might never end. Then there were days where I worried it might end too soon. Yet here we are, and it is time for farewell and a look forward.
While waiting for COVID-19 jabs to poke a hole in social distancing, many of us pledge to uphold a list of new-year resolutions. Even in regular times, solemnly vowing to swim 50 laps each morning or picking up multiple new languages by next December feels a bit ambitious. At the turn of this year, demanding momentous self-edification from ourselves feels almost unfair.
Suffice that we act in a friendly and fair way toward our fellow humans. Yet what about businesses? Could companies try their hand at this age-old best practice?
They should; 2021 should be a rebound year not only for profits but also for commitments.
Here are four items to get business leaders started.
First, sign up for a digital gym membership – and go.
The high costs of human-to-human interactions during COVID-19 has put businesses' digital fitness to an extreme test. CEOs got pulled out of conference rooms and into their living rooms (or kitchens), where they were forced to conduct consecutive international meetings via Zoom or MS Teams. In particular, the retail sector underwent a rude awakening. Senior executives were forced to hang on to the last business line that generated revenues as they watched supplies pulled away from underneath their feet.
Before 2019, like almost all other company leaders, you had developed digital roadmaps. You vowed to invest time and energy in developing strength and agility. Buzzwords aside, perhaps you innovated at a leisurely pace due to an entrenched attachment to legacy infrastructures, processes, and ways of working.
When COVID-19 imposed an immediate "everything virtual" transformation, and old practices were thrown on the junk heap along with sharp business suits, the naked truth was revealed. Your organization has no digital muscles.
It is time to shape up.
In 2021, let us get serious about "digital transformation," whichever way you define it. Paying your favorite personal coach handsomely for a well-planned strategy is one thing. Going to the digital gym, doing the heavy lifting of overhauling legacy systems, and toning loose muscles within your organization is another.
This year you must live up to your expectations. Take an Instagram selfie of your company and start sweating it out. In 365 days, you should be ready to present your board a before and after story.
Second, set a goal for a balanced meal instead of extreme dieting.
Various and often enormous external pressures compel you to monitor your business' weight at all times. Are we lean and flexible enough, you wonder? Then you seek out the latest diet prescribed by influencers and gurus. And you cut – resources, human and others. Sustaining your company on the business world's equivalent of Spirulina shake may help you gain efficiency, it runs the risk of causing a loss of focus, short breath, or malnutrition.
Like many businesses, it is likely that your organization was subjected to relentless investor pressure over the last years. As a result, you prioritized efficiency gains and cost-cutting over disruptive technologies and business model innovations.
You used to laugh at "dreamers" who invested in building creative capabilities for the future. Your board members told you these are "unrealistic and impractical." But COVID-19 made you realize that the dreamers might have the slack resources to withstand the storm. They stored creative energy to generate novel responses. You did not.
In 2021, recalibrate your meals. You do not want to fall back on high carbon, high-fat routine while counting on an occasional extreme diet to lose excess weight. Instead, make a conscious choice to introduce exotic business vegies into your management practices. What about a monthly check-in on how you are following through with your innovative ideas?
Third, emerge from your panic room, invest in people.
In light of the crisis, we all want to build resilience. Many choose to order a panic room or turn their basements into bunkers, their shelves stuffed with emergency supplies of cash reserves, hardnosed executives who "deliver the numbers," and furloughed employees. These may be efficient, perhaps life-saving stopgaps. But they are temporary. When your company steps out of its isolation, it might find itself laid bare, feeble, and exposed to infection risks.
Let go of short-term stocking and regain your ability to invest in people for the long run. In times of crisis, we look for resilience within and among us. Those who stay calm and collected, gather ideas and develop a sound plan, unite and motivate the crowd, have the courage to take risks, and the willingness to take responsibilities emerge not just as survivors but winners.
In 2021, cancel your "panic room" approach, and do not overstock your basement with safe bets that fuel your short-term. Instead, invest in your high-potential talent. This is your best bet for the future, especially for these sneaky unknown unknowns.
Fourth, stop retweeting posts by influencers; make time for face time with friends and colleagues.
Business leaders are people. And most people are not immune to contagious social media interactions that narrow our social experience to a few super-spreaders. Are those classmates of yours who gathered a million followers sharing a profound truth when they post yet another “humbled and grateful” update?
Get real. Businesses talk to investors via quarterly earnings calls, reach out to customers through multiple channels, and engage with employees by holding regular meetings and running periodic surveys. Pay attention to the nitty-gritty details of your business.
In 2021, let go of infinite scrolling. Raise yourself above the feed. Even if you are barred from leaving your office or flat, make sure you see the faces and hear the voices of employees or friends with whom you have long lost touch.
Ask them how they are doing, whether they are happy or anxious. Find out what they care about. Look into their eyes and ask them if you can do anything for them, for their families.
Surely 2020 was a tough year because it alienated business people and their companies from human interaction. It robbed us of our sense of fellowship, adventure, and wonder. Let's commit to making 2021 a year where we regain all that.
This way, when 2022 starts, we will know we have not shed blood, sweat, and resources in vain.
The writer is a professor of strategy at INSEAD.