The business year ahead will be the toughest of our lifetimes – even more challenging than 2020. The people agenda will take a prominence it has never had before. It must be aligned to a once in a generation re-set of individual companies, sectors and whole economies. There is no going back to life before Covid-19.
During 100 days of lockdown between March and June 2020, I had remarkable access to 28 global business leaders as they dealt with the pandemic. I captured their real time insights on coping with the crisis and how the world will change because of it.
Christian Lanng, the CEO of San Francisco based tech unicorn Tradeshift, set the tone when he told me, “With Covid-19, every single long-held belief has been thrown out of the window.”
From this extraordinary period with the world’s most insightful businesswomen and men, seven key themes for the future emerged. These remain as relevant through 2021 as they were when conveyed to me from kitchen workstations around the world.
The new age of purpose – Now is the time for companies to genuinely deliver on purpose centred business. Leena Nair, CHRO at purpose leaders Unilever observed, “This time has elevated purpose like no other.”
The new world of work – Tata moved 600,000 people to home working in a matter of days at the start of the crisis. Group CHRO Nupur Singh Mallick told me, “We are seriously considering by 2025 whether we could have only 25% of our people working in an office.” Yet the switch to home working in the virtual world is only the tip of the iceberg under which lies a complete re-set of the relationship between employer and employee.
Resilience – Covid-19 exposed a need to build better resilience into our businesses in every way – from financial resilience to operational resilience to the resilience of our people at all levels. Sir David Behan is Executive Chair of the UK’s largest care home company HC-One. More than one thousand of his residents died. He explained that their resilience was underpinned by the belief that, “We are judged as leaders not on what we are like when the going is good. We are judged as leaders on what we are like when the going is tough.”
Tackling inequality – Covid-19 exposed inequality at every level. Business must now address the deep-rooted inequality which we ferment. As the former CEO of Grant Thornton Sacha Romanovitch told me, “The one thing this proves is that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.” While Martin Gilbert, the founder of Aberdeen Asset Management said, “Globalisation has made us better off, but better for whom? Better off for only 10%”
Global co-operation – New York Times CEO and former BBC Director General Mark Thompson told me, “Covid-19 reinforces that the post-war multilateral world is not really working anymore, and it is each country for itself.” As politicians drive division corporates must do the opposite. They must bake into their strategies global partnerships like the tech companies did for track and trace and big pharma did in the search for a vaccine.
Re-setting the supply chain – Covid-19 showed how supply chains are fatally flawed. Ho Kwon Ping, the Executive Chairman of hotel and resorts business Banyan Tree Holdings was clear, “Supply chain decisions can no longer be made purely on the basis of cost, productivity and efficiency. They will have to be made on political grounds too.”
Maximising potential – The leaders in lockdown agreed we must create a new approach to maximising the potential of our people. How can we mix technology and human intervention to deliver behavioural change at a pace that needs to be greater than ever before? How do we adopt a new mindset in leadership development where emotional intelligence, empathy and empowerment dominate? How do we create a new world of business where a coaching culture, mental health and physical health are centre stage? WHOOP founder and CEO Will Ahmed told me, “I fundamentally believe that this moment in time will shift the way humanity thinks about work and health.” He is evangelistic in changing the way executives prepare citing the need to “adopt the same mindset as an Olympian.”
These seven themes are a framework for leaders to create new strategies and articulate change – a check list for starting 2021. None can be ignored. All our leaders in lockdown agreed that Covid-19 has brought society to a crossroads. We can choose one path or another. We owe it to our children and our grandchildren not to go back to the way we were. We owe it to the many millions who were infected and the hundreds of thousands of people who died. We must use the memory of the experience of Covid-19 to improve our business world and to improve the lives of the eight billion people who inhabit this planet. This is the agenda we must seize in 2021. How successful will we be in this endeavour? In the end, as always, it all comes down to leadership.