Leadership Lessons From a Year of Mass Disruption

"The volatility of the past year cannot be overstated. We’ve been calling it the 'agility economy.'"
Brian PeccarelliApril 30, 2021

JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon recently wrote in his shareholder letter that he is bullish on the U.S. economy, explaining: “I have little doubt that with excess savings, new stimulus savings, huge deficit spending, more QE, a new potential infrastructure bill, a successful vaccine, and euphoria around the end of the pandemic, the U.S. economy will likely boom.”

It’s not just large multinationals that are feeling good. A June survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 75% of small-business owners are confident that their business will be better prepared to handle a crisis like COVID-19 if it were to occur in the future.

What’s making business leaders so confident?

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I’ve found several common leadership lessons inspiring optimism as I’ve talked to partners and clients — many of which will be critical as we move into the next phase of recovery.

The New Employer-Employee Contract

It’s impossible to talk about business leadership in 202o and beyond without addressing the large-scale shift to work-from-home. Before the pandemic, Americans spent 5% of their working time at home. By the spring of 2020, that figure had jumped to 60%. While some elements of that transition were remarkably smooth, others were not.

“I have an employee working at midnight because it’s the quiet time; the kids are finally asleep,” Belva Anakwenze of Abacus Financial Business Management told the Los Angeles Times. “I have one putting hours in on weekends when there’s no home-schooling. So, it’s not a weekday, 9-to-5 job. And not being able to talk to someone at the next desk, that lack of free-flowing questions and getting answers, has been a real challenge.”

A quarter of remote professionals (28%) noted they have had to use too many different technology tools to communicate or collaborate with others, while 16% felt overwhelmed with the amount of technology they were being asked to use.

The example is just one among millions of anecdotes and data points proving that, even now, as many companies plan to reopen offices but keep some portion of their employees remote, successfully navigating the remote-work model means more than just setting up a video conferencing account and resuming business as usual.

Managing people in this environment requires a level of fluidity balanced with accountability — the flexibility to acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all approach, balanced with the understanding that there are still clear-cut deadlines and deliverables. Clear communication and regular engagement in town halls, employee surveys, and direct, one-on-one conversations are critical to helping inform the tweaks and adjustments needed to keep remote work guardrails in place.

On a Dime

The volatility of the past year cannot be overstated. We’ve been calling it the “agility economy.” Businesses have been forced to switch on a dime to deal with volatile ebbs and flows in consumer and  business-t0-business demand. Even now, the recovery is uneven, with some sectors thriving while others struggle.

To survive and thrive in this environment for the long haul, businesses need to get serious about data. They need to track granular, localized inputs and trends to inform strategic decision-making and anticipate necessary directional shifts early on. Enterprise-wide data and analytics capabilities are no longer a nice-to-have. The crisis has made it clear that real-time insights are central to resilient operations.

Embracing Adjacencies

As companies continued to dig deeper into their strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities during the pandemic, many found untapped resources that helped them pivot into adjacent services. Baldor Specialty Foods, one of the Northeast’s largest wholesale restaurant suppliers, switched to a home delivery model when its restaurant business ground to a halt. Now, after a year of sending its trucks into suburban neighborhoods while the restaurant industry slowly recovered, Baldor has a lucrative business line of in-home deliveries.

Similarly, countless legal and accounting firms have expanded their offerings by advising clients on pressing business challenges that emerged during the pandemic. Many became go-to experts in managing the Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan application process; others evolved their operations from strictly compliance-focused activities to more advisory-driven roles; others launched business strategy consulting services. In every example, these businesses opened up new lines of revenue and forged indelible bonds with their clients by being there for them when they were needed most.

Supported, Streamlined Infrastructure

To achieve any of this, of course, businesses also need the technology backbone to support seamless employee communications and gather critical inputs and data points from across their operations. A report Thomson Reuters released last fall, which polled professionals in the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Canada, found that the majority (83%) of workers had at least one technological setback while working from home. Of those, 28% noted they have had to use too many different technology tools to communicate or collaborate with others. About 16% felt overwhelmed with the amount of technology they were being asked to use.

One-in-four (24%) said their organization had told them that a new platform or technology would help them become more efficient. Still, respondents said it ultimately did not deliver on that promise. Sixteen percent said they had to use too many technology tools to accomplish their work.

What companies have learned over the past year of remote technology roll-out is that it’s not enough to have lots of technology available; it needs to be synchronized and streamlined to deliver across a wide variety of use cases. This again is an area where constant refinement and tweaking are necessary.

There might not be an official playbook, but after a year of trial and error, there are many common strands in the DNA of businesses that have successfully navigated the pandemic. Those that were able to adapt quickly, bolster their infrastructure, and fully and honestly appraise their own unique needs, and those of their clients, were not only able to come out of the other side of the pandemic, but they also gained the confidence and experience to do it again.

Brian Peccarelli is co-chief operating officer of Thomson Reuters.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images