The 2020’s Will be the Decade to Deliver

Sun Light

Oh no, not another year like no other? Alas it’s true.

If we thought that 2020 was a hellion year, how about 2021? Yes, the initial shock of a global attack on respiratory systems subsided, but the variants of the virus sent us spinning. Silently, the pandemic has transformed our lives and shaped our perspectives on a bunch of fronts: medically, morally and mentally. We became different people. We have become different leaders.

And now a new challenge awaits: emerging successfully into what many are calling a second “roaring 20s”. As we think about what that looks like, I couldn’t help but remember the range of emotions I experienced during a visit to one of Canada’s famed corn mazes. There was excitement about facing a new challenge. Frustration at not being able to move more quickly to find the exit turn style. Disagreements as to what direction to take; the clock ticks; the group wobbles on best courses of action.

It made me think that this is exactly where we are now as we ease out of the pandemic – in the middle of a messy maze, each of us working diligently to shake off doubt, splash cold water on our tired eyes, and find a way to get the hell out.

The big lesson of any corn maze visit is that we can’t do it alone. In fact, many farmers have people whose sole job it is to give out clues to help you get out. In that spirit, I’d like to share “clues” to help us navigate what’s next, how to get ready for it and how to lead yourself and your team out of the maze.

Three Big Shifts: Three New Leadership Capabilities

From my vantage point, there are three big shifts to pay attention to. The first is sustaining digital transformation. According to an HP study, this means continuously evolving business and operating models, turning data into assets and cultivating trust within and beyond our organizations. We fared well in these fields during the pandemic because we had to.

Organizations embraced remote work, invested in collaborative tools and went virtual (who would have thought online medical appointments would go mainstream?). But let’s face it, exhaustion and fatigue will likely cause many of us to take our foot off the gas pedal. This isn’t the time to let up. In fact, we need to redouble efforts to sharpen our edge.

Getting ready to meet this challenge means we need to think about what it means to become a digital leader. As we take stock of the capabilities required, it will mean becoming even more tech literate. Consider embedding a data analytic scientist into major working groups to more quickly build understanding. It also means leaders need to become digital translators: both helping people see where the puck will be as well as showing how things will work. Forming communities of practice, developing partnerships, and drawing on reverse mentorship goes a long way to connecting these dots.

Another insight from that same HP study warned that 70% of digital transformation efforts will fail either through inexperience, ineffective strategy execution or misalignment of culture. It was this last insight that caught my attention, leading to the second big shift: we need to become relational leaders. Many people tell me they’re already there – that they’re “nicer” to people. While I’m thrilled you have good relations, that’s not what relational leading is about.

Relational leaders are connectors who hold up their strategy and size up the leadership skills needed to get the job done. They know instinctively how to make others feel that they belong. They have an uncanny knack at catalyzing the perspectives of others, and in turn, this strengthens culture, building what I call “connective intelligence”.

But a problem has emerged preventing leaders from accelerating performance. It’s the need to brush up our skills for onboarding and coaching. While many leaders have great coaches, it’s another thing to be a great coach or mentor. In this light, leaders need to own the accountability to support others.

picture of Dr. Kati Kariko, vaccine researcher

Dr. Kati Kariko, photo credit, Hannah Yoon

And it’s these skills that lead us to last big shift. To effectively compete in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, we need to become disruptive leaders. One of the skills that helps leaders disrupt is to share great stories of strength. As you prepare for the year ahead, here’s a story you may wish to use to inspire your team. It’s a story of grit, innovation, resilience and commitment – all attributes we know we’re going to need a lot of in the coming decade.

Dr. Kati Kariko arrived in the U.S. from Hungary in her 20’s with a quest to follow her passion to conduct mRNA cell research. She found herself unable to find a permanent job because of this unshakeable focus. Now 66, she is celebrated around the world for her role in laying the foundation for the vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna.

She did so against incredible odds and largely without support because her ideas were so unconventional. In a telling comment, one of her colleagues said, “The one key to real scientific understanding is to design experiments that always tell you something, even if it is something you don’t want to hear.” And that’s what Dr. Kariko lived – her story is one of failed experiment after failed experiment, but she refused to give up.

Forty years after her relentless pursuit, what can we learn from the story of Kati Kariko? Disruptive leaders are enthusiastic problem hunters. They are obsessive about finding solutions and they are not afraid to stand out. They aren’t afraid to admit when they make mistakes and are open about what they need to learn. They don’t flinch from taking action.

As we’ve seen in each of the three shifts, the legacy of our leadership – no matter where we sit in the organization – rests in how our decisions translate into action. Our judgements tell the tale of how much we listened, how we learned, how we analyzed data, and how we understand our place in our eco-system.

None of us will ever be the same having survived the pandemic. The world shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The pandemic left no person, no country untouched. To not take advantage of its gifts would be a squandered opportunity. The gifts of  a new respect for equality, renewed humility, compassion for others will go a long way to innovating the kinds of technology, systems and products we need for a sustainable future. Oh, and all that technology: let’s remember it’s not going to get us out of the maze, it’s only a vehicle.

As you exit the turn style, take stock of yourself, see the world with fresh eyes and yes – take a big deep breath – make ready for a bold, new adventure that the pandemic has prepared you for. Be a digital leader, become a relational leader and by all means, disrupt. Harness every ounce of wonder and curiosity you have. But let’s promise ourselves one thing: let’s make the new “roaring 20s” the decade that leadership delivered.

Disruptive Leadership: Preparing for 2022 and Beyond

a glass bowl reflecting a beautiful sunset

Over the past year I’ve been honoured to work with great organizations on their leadership and strategy. Spoken to thousands of people on event platforms that while they keep getting better, still can’t replace that feeling of connecting with a live audience.
As I reflect on our work together, three themes emerged.
Theme One

The first was how none of us will ever be the same after living through these times. The question now is how we will harness these changes – to do better, to be better. To be sure, a big part of our changes is the pandemic, but factor in the rise in of social justice, global warming, and environmental disasters as well – and we’ve entered a time of profound disruption. A time that has given us a gift to question what we stand for in ways we never had before. This means developing a much higher level of self-awareness and the effects of our actions on others.
Theme Two

How dedicated organizations have become in supporting their eco-system emerged as a second theme. The fragility of relationships came in to focus as company’s thought through how to support employees (and their families), customers, and vendors. For some it even meant supporting their competitors. Who would have thought that Boston Pizza would encourage their customers to order from small independent restaurants? This view of situating ourselves in the bigger picture means having a much more external focus and thinking about the greater good. It means finding more flexibility in ourselves and being ok with reversing decisions when evidence points us in a new direction.
Theme Three

It hit me that increasingly leaders will need to find ways to thrive in disruption. In 2021 we saw great examples of disruptive leaders: two of my favourite stories are Damian Warner winning gold in the decathlon Tokyo after months of training in a freezing, abandoned hockey arena in London, Ontario and Dr. Kati Kariko who dedicated 40 years of her life, ultimately helping to produce the first rRNA vaccine. Demoted and shuffled around, she stood by her beliefs at a time when many in the scientific community wouldn’t give her the time of day.
What can we learn from these spectacular stories of strength?

  • Disruptive leaders are avid problem hunters.
  • Disruptive leaders are obsessed with finding solutions.
  • Disruptive leaders are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

So as 2021 closes and you enjoy a few days off, watch the snow fall gently, slowly outside of your window. Reflect on the year that was and what you will do differently. Inspire yourself to become more self-aware, more externally focussed and more disruptive. By doing this, you’ll not only enter 2022 more positively and with renewed energy but you’ll help others to do the same.

Here we come 2021

BirchGrove log with snow falling and a Santa Hat.

Image: Clayton Birch

We’re almost there. Only eleven sleeps to go until this beastly year is over. To front line workers everywhere who have given of themselves like never before, thank-you. To government leaders who continue to make crucial decisions to safeguard our health, keep going. To leaders who have made difficult decisions to keep their organizations running, don’t stop. To creative performers, keep singing, keep dancing, keep practicing your art. To kids who are having such a tough time understanding why all of this happening, keep learning. To senior citizens who are doing their best to protect themselves, we all love you.

Experiment with your experience

Leading ourselves out of the pandemic will be be 2021’s toughest work. In 2021 we will have to dig deeper than we ever have before. I get the sense there’s a feeling that once everyone is inoculated the worst will be over. It won’t be. Unfortunately, even the most powerful vaccine will not cure systemic racism, mend a broken economy, or protect our vulnerable environment. The word resilience will take on new meaning in 2021; it will become synonymous with tireless trail and error. Leaders will need to move away from solely relying on their experience and embrace experimentation. It will be more ok to fail, so long as we’re chalking it up to lessons learned.

Once we go back to watching the Raptors’ together in big groups, visiting our favourite restaurants and galleries, we will be conflicted. We’ll feel we deserve a break after all of the sacrifices we’ve made. And we will. But we can’t put our feet up for very long. Some of the hardest but most meaningful work awaits us. Are you ready for it? We will need to be more innovative with less resources, and more entrepreneurial meeting sharper timelines. Sure we’ve been well tested, and now as we head into 2021 we need to be well rested. We need to take a moment now to pause and step back from the craziness of this year. Assessing where we went right, where we could have done better will be vital to taking those first careful steps into the new year.

Pausing to know better

On December 18th at 9:00 a.m. I finally finished the first draft of my new book, Hit Pause…Know Better. What started out as a book on relational leadership twisted and turned with each phase of the pandemic. I was fortunate that leaders who were on the front lines of change found time to share stories of resolve, pain and…hope. What became clear with each conversation is that a new kind of leadership will be needed if we are to successfully emerge out of this pandemic into a world that is as equitable as it is extraordinary.

My holiday gift to you has been designed to help you kick-start the new year off with a bang. I’ve framed seven questions you can ask yourself to prepare for this new experimental leadership. If you’d like a copy, sign up here. I look forward to continuing the conversation of resilience, experimentation and new forms of leadership as we head into January’s welcoming arms. 

Enjoy the peace of the season. You’ve earned it.

Green and red holiday card with a season's greeting in the centre