It is a relief to close the door on 2020 and look ahead to 2021. But there are valuable business lessons to take away from the most unconventional year we all just endured. Here are three that are worth reviewing.
We are nearing the finish line of a year that many people will forever associate with difficult challenges and pain. Lessons will undoubtedly emerge from all of the personal hardships.
On the professional front, it’s hard to imagine any employee, manager, or leader who didn’t experience some major shift in their company or the way it operates – some positive things and many negative. They too are walking away from 2020 with key insights and observations that will hopefully strengthen their companies for the challenges ahead.
While there is an infinite list of lessons that we all could take away from this year, some are more critical than others for leaders who are trying to best manage their ship in waves of uncertainty.
Here are three key takeaways that business executives and senior leaders should recognize as we enter 2021:
Contingency Planning For Emerging Concerns Is Critical
How will your company react the next time a health crisis starts to appear on the other side of the world? Do your communications teams have an action plan for the next time-sensitive social issues weave through your industry?
Whether it’s planning for immediate changes in how employees work or for addressing company policy standards on relevant social issues, leaders need to have a documented contingency plan for how, when, and to what degree action needs to be taken.
As we’ve seen from events over the last year, no department or functional role is immune to sudden shifts from external forces.
Step one is about developing some type of action plan and communication strategy earlier for emerging events that could have some direct or indirect impact on the business.
While this could seem daunting, focus on what threats would most directly affect your company’s ability to operate, your employees and their well-being, and your culture or your brand in the eyes of your customers. Simply put, ask yourself what events in the business, social, global landscape are surfacing right now that may become a concern for us tomorrow.
You should create or refine a plan for the things on that list that look highly likely or disproportionately threatening. The same should be done for opportunities that arise in the market that could be favorable for your company.
Step two is about ensuring all the relevant stakeholders have access to the plan and communication streams so that everyone knows what to expect when action is needed.
JPMorgan Chase is one clear example of how a company created and actually tested a plan in preparation for what ended up being a necessity. In late February and early March, it was reported that the company used a contingency plan named “Project Kennedy” to test how thousands of employees could work from home in the event that the coronavirus outbreak spread further.
This was well before any other large company issued a formal work-from-home program that was associated with the health crisis. Fast forward to today, it could reasonably be said that it served the company really well.
Your Company’s Brand Is Dynamic And Always Faces Risks
Just as a contingency plan can help your organization balance the challenging demands that may emerge from a national crisis or growing social restlessness, your brand needs the same level of thoughtfulness about what you communicate to your consumers, employees, and community. What your company stands for and how it markets itself to the public is less of a headache during good times, but it can truly be a make or break for your brand during bad times.
Topics of equality, justice, diversity, public health, and employee wellness are all among the things being considered by consumers as they engage with brands today. Today’s executives and managers need to view the maintenance of their brand as a true work-in-progress, no longer simply a line item for the marketing department.
When Nike ran a controversial campaign with Colin Kaepernick during the midst of the kneeling during the national anthem debate, it wasn’t immediately clear just how it would be received. When Quinnipiac University National Poll later released their findings, it was clear that public support was in their favor and sales followed.
The company didn’t rest from its prior efforts on social issues, it continued to build consumer trust on a topic that it knows people care about. They remained dynamic with their brand and it served them well, in part, because of consumer loyalty and brand affinity that it earned.
On the other hand, we’ve seen stories recently surface about tech companies that refuse to take a stance on social issues and prohibit political speech. In an age when more companies have taken the opposite approach, it will be interesting to see how actions like these impact a business or a customer’s willingness to support it.
All Assumptions Should Be Challenged Regularly
Effective executives and senior leaders create and communicate a message about why the company does what it does. This helps each stakeholder understand how their role fits into a larger vision. Hopefully, when a contingency plan is created, as outlined earlier, everyone has a deeper understanding of how to shift strategies when the situation calls for it.
However, relying on a set of ‘what if’ plans isn’t enough. Successful leaders need to foster a culture and company environment where everyone is regularly challenging traditional assumptions. For example, it’s been well documented that some managers were skeptical of the remote work trend. Be it a lack of trust or inability to measure productivity, the reasons are plentiful.
Changing the assumptions that work is done in a singular place or office may take time, but larger widespread events like the pandemic reinforce how quickly some ideas can shift from bad to not as bad as we expected.
Does a distributed team really work most effectively through asynchronous tools like email? Is a traditional hourly pay structure right when someone is working remotely and may need more schedule flexibility? All of these long-held beliefs and processes are ripe for reconsideration.
Turning Ideas Into Action
All of these questions should be on the table and each leader owes it to their team to think through how the old ways of working can be improved. While these concepts likely won’t be at the top of the priority list, they deserve some inclusion on your ranking of objectives.
You can’t predict the future but you sure can plan more effectively for things that could arise, even if they are low-probability scenarios. That investment in time, effort, and resources could pay dividends in the future.
Finally, consider how your company’s brand and vision could be impacted through all of this. You won’t know for sure how things will land, but the exercise of thinking about it beyond a simple marketing analysis could serve you well.
The beginning of a new year is busy for some organizations but slow for others. Find a way to integrate these concepts and ideas into your annual planning and kickoff events. If 2021 ends up being anything like 2020, you’ll thank yourself for it.
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