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Optimism Is High Heading Into 2021, but It’s Up to Leaders to Deliver

What kind of leadership lessons can we take from 2020, an undoubtedly tumultuous year? Three experts weigh in.

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If you’re a business owner, chances are good that 2020 was one of the most challenging years that you’ve ever had to endure. Pivoting to new business models, adapting to fluctuations in demand, and juggling regulations to protect your team from the coronavirus — not to mention dealing with the mental, physical, and emotional toll of the pandemic — doesn’t come easy. But many of you have persevered against incredible odds.

While the new year doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet, research from the Project Management Institute indicates that 71% of managers are optimistic 2021 will be the year things get back on track. As you begin with a clean(ish) slate, it’s important to remember what you learned in 2020 — and use it to drive your organization forward and care for your employees. Consider these three lessons from the past year as you plan for 2021 and beyond.

1. Focus on your team’s mental health.

The health concerns, financial impacts, and isolation brought on by the pandemic have exacerbated a preexisting mental health crisis in the U.S., and people already coping with anxiety and depression have only felt worse in this frightening new environment.

Lisa Carlson, the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, views the increasingly grim situation with a grain of optimism, saying, “I really hope that, above all, this is the moment when we break down barriers to talking about mental health because I think the most important thing we can do — as professionals and in our families and in our communities — is to talk about it.”

As a leader in your organization, it’s up to you to encourage that openness around mental health so your employees can feel comfortable taking steps to mitigate their struggles, like taking mental health days. Data from Monster indicates that almost half of employees didn’t use all their PTO in 2020, so encourage them to take full advantage of paid time off to prevent burnout and preserve their well-being. You can also impose boundaries around working hours to prevent employees from overworking themselves at night or on weekends.

2. Back up words with action.

Social justice initiatives took center stage last year, but these causes demand more than words. Many brands talked about their commitment to social justice in 2020, and in 2021, it’s time to walk the walk.

Alison Gutterman, CEO and president of Jelmar (the company behind CLR cleaning solutions), offers some insights into doing this. “Words are powerful, but actions are what truly make lasting change,” says Gutterman. “Read up, watch TED Talks, and take classes on diversity and inclusion — preferably using material created by people of color or marginalized community members. Then, develop DEI programs in your companies and measure their effectiveness.”

Talking about race can be uncomfortable, but it’s essential to have these conversations if you want to get to a place of equity and inclusion. Start in your organization, where your leadership team can enact immediately impactful changes for the people around you. Ask questions and work with your employees to identify bias in the workplace. Once you’ve identified inequalities, whether in hiring practices, promotions, compensation, or expectations, work to eliminate them and create a more just workplace for everyone.

3. Learn to lead remotely.

The transition to remote work was difficult, but employees delivered despite the challenges. Jamie Coakley, vice president of people at Electric, an IT support firm, explains that employees will continue to thrive when they’re free to follow their own ways of working. “Remote work has become the norm for many, and employees will value the flexibility in creating their own autonomous working style to do their role,” says Coakley.

Giving employees some autonomy, however, shouldn’t mean they have to go it alone. According to a survey from GGV Capital, 54% of small business owners increased their spending on software solutions from 2019 to 2020, and 75% expect software spending to increase again in 2021 — likely due to the continued popularity of remote work. Research from Intermedia suggests that 57% of SMB owners plan to keep remote work options available long term, which means business leaders will have to continue to steer the ship from afar. No matter what industry you’re in, the best way to lead remotely is to arm your teams with the solutions they need to succeed, whether it’s Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or a visual collaboration tool such as Miro.

Last year was tumultuous, and that chaos will no doubt reverberate throughout 2021. There will be difficult times ahead, but the lessons we learned in 2020 will help you seize opportunities to lead your organization toward a brighter future. Your employees, customers, and peers are counting on you, and you have what it takes to deliver.

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