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Communication and courage: The top 5 corporate leadership lessons from 2020

December 31, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC
“To lead in 2020 and beyond,” writes Katherine Thompson, “you must be transparent, build authentic connections, and demonstrate courage with your employees.”
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This time last year, I was optimistic about starting 2020, excited to enter both a new year and a new decade. Like other corporate leaders, I finalized visions and planned to move along traditional pathways of success. But for all of us, those pathways would quickly change into a road that wound through challenging, uncertain terrain. 

Even as the world ramped up to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, corporate leaders would find other insurmountable challenges waiting in the wings—such as an economic downturn, racial unrest, and one of the most important elections of our time. 

Still, as I look back on 2020, I see a year of great reflection, awakening, and resiliency. Here are the top five corporate leadership lessons I learned in 2020.

Building transparency, communication, and connection

Most leaders strive to create transparent work environments that offer open communication and authentic engagement between employees and management. The trials of 2020 quickly put this commitment to the test. Whether coping with COVID’s economic impacts or with protests about racial injustice, leaders had to find ways to quickly communicate and genuinely engage with employees. Building transparency and connections proved critical to the pulse and survival of organizations and their people. As leaders found themselves addressing financial impacts with layoffs, or managing virtual teams of overworked and stressed employees, they were forced to tap their emotional intelligence (EI) by connecting more deeply on a human level. We observed corporate leaders putting “business as usual” messaging aside and stepping up by having honest and tough conversations and listening sessions on topics like race, politics, and the importance of voting, child care, mental health, and employee financial burdens. 

Lesson learned: Having a high EI IQ that takes into consideration empathy and compassion can go a long way in leadership. From employees losing loved ones to COVID-19 to women leaving the workforce at alarming rates to educate and care for children, 2020 taught leaders to quickly address issues, have thoughtful plans, and put resources in place to support the holistic well-being of their people.

Redefining agility and trust

An ongoing corporate leadership trend has involved building agile organizations. This year demonstrated the importance of agility in a particularly vivid way, as companies of all sizes had to integrate creative solutions to implement transitions of people and their work environments. Having to scale up and move entire corporate organizations remotely in a short period of time as COVID took over the globe proved challenging, but doable.  

Lesson learned: Agility is no longer an option. It’s a requirement for success. To sustain agility, companies must trust their employees and shift away from traditional workplace and work-setting models. Employees have earned that trust, demonstrating that jobs and functions that their leaders had long thought could not be done outside of the office could, in reality, work on a remote basis and at a highly productive level. Through this experience, corporate leaders gained more confidence in their teams’ skills and abilities. But building an agile organization never stops. True agility requires building flexible business models that involve enhancing current infrastructures, creating new working models, and acquiring technologies that enhance productivity.

Creating boundaries

COVID-19 redefined the idea of corporate work/life balance. Whether dealing with screaming kids while on work Zoom calls, or caring for an elderly family member, parents and caregivers felt and continue to feel the challenges and burdens of balancing work and family. I vividly recall holding a briefing for a client, only for my 4-year-old to interject with requests for apple juice and Paw Patrol. Like many working parents trying to keep it together, I apologized, got the apple juice, and proceeded with my brief. 

Lesson learned: This year taught leaders the importance of tapping into their emotional intelligence by demonstrating more awareness, compassion, and flexibility. There is no such thing as true work/life balance in the age of COVID-19: It’s all intertwined, and employees are trying their best to keep afloat and perform. For leaders, being flexible and encouraging employees to set clear boundaries (e.g., by modifying daily work schedules and taking staycations or mental-health days) is critical to creating a happy and healthy work environment.

Redefining impact and allyship in diversity 

Racial and civil unrest boiled over in 2020. It forced leaders to take a hard look at their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs. It’s a test that many didn’t pass. Some corporate leaders publicly claimed they were unable to find diverse talent. Others adopted optical allyship stances, like the companies that posted symbolic black squares without backing them up with action plans. These gestures illustrated leaders’ lack of transparency and commitment to nurturing diversity at all levels. And this year’s events confirmed that leaders have much more work to do to address workforce parity, for women and for employees of color. 

Lesson learned: Leaders learned that change starts with empathetic understanding, addressing personal bias, and redefining goals in order to enable meaningful results where diversity is concerned. Whether they were redesigning DE&I action plans, launching new recruiting models, or being intentional about engaging employees from diverse backgrounds (through coaching or mentoring, for example), some leaders showed that they can do the work to move the needle around diversity. But 2020 proved that those leaders must be accountable and want to be a part of leading the change. 

Leading fearlessly 

After publishing the piece “Why I’ve decided to stop playing the ‘safe’ Black professional role in corporate America” in August, I underwent an awakening of my own on what it means to embrace authentic leadership in 2020. To be quite honest, leading from a place of vulnerability and fearlessness is often lonely, and yet it’s extremely gratifying and absolutely necessary. Fearless leaders aren’t worried about “staying on message” because it’s on trend or makes others feel comfortable. Fearless leaders push and encourage people to think, reflect, react, and embrace accountability. 

Lessons learned: To lead in 2020 and beyond, you must be transparent, build authentic connections, and demonstrate courage with your employees. You have to be willing to stand up, have hard conversations, and ask tough questions, even when that means voicing an unpopular response or opinion. This year taught me and other corporate leaders to be resilient, acknowledge flaws and challenges, embrace the unknown, and create collaborative safe places where we can build long-lasting and sustainable solutions—not just for the present, but for our future.

Katherine Thompson is a business transformation and organizational change management expert. She works with public and private sector clients to implement Agile software platforms and IT-modernization programs. The views in this article are that of the author.