FRANKLIN, Tenn. — It has been said that the pandemic accelerated innovation and the adoption of new methods, skills and technologies so dramatically that five to 10 years of innovation have been condensed into just one.
I am not just referring to how quickly Zoom became as ubiquitous of a synecdoche (brand names that become genericized) as Kleenex, Xerox and Coke, but rather to the fact that all of us have had to rapidly adapt to a world that was unlike any most of us had ever lived in.
What this means to today’s leaders is that they need to reach beyond the knowledge, skills and experience they accumulated in their pre-COVID careers and education and evolve into new versions of themselves by taking on attributes that have been specifically adapted to our new normal.
In On The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin theorized that living things take generations to take on new physical and behavioral traits in response to external stimuli, but just like the acceleration of digital technologies since last spring, the acceleration of the evolution of today’s laundry leaders has taken place at faster-than-light speed as compared to the evolution of Darwin’s finches, tortoises and iguanas.
Among the new attributes that have become necessary are agility, flexibility and digital literacy.
Many of us thought we understood the meaning of the term “agility” before the pandemic, but its meaning was brought right to our doorsteps when the worldwide economy shut down virtually overnight.
For some it had been an abstract concept: see an obstacle in your path; figure out the best way around, over or under it; and try not to slow down or be stopped by it.
The businesses that survived those early days and weeks after the initial lockdowns, and that will continue to thrive going forward, are those led by the most agile leaders—the people who have been most able to come up with temporary solutions, determine which worked and which didn’t, apply new methods and technologies, and determine which initiatives to continue through and past the pandemic.
And what determines the most agile leaders are those people who also take some time, even while they continue to move their businesses forward, to look back at the obstacle and to learn and adapt from the experience of moving past it.
During those early days of the pandemic, and ever since, leaders have learned that the world is now governed by a new set of rules, some that change on a daily or weekly basis.
Examples are everywhere and include changing public health strategies; the shift to remote work; on-again-off-again lockdowns; differing rules between towns, counties, states and countries; supply-chain issues; product shortages; and more.
As a result of this new world order, even the most rigid leaders, to be successful, have had to evolve virtually overnight and sometimes from hour to hour. These micro-evolutions were forced upon them by the government, customers, colleagues, medical professionals, team members and technology.
Unanticipated and unexpected changes have become the rule rather than the exception, so being prepared for and willing to adapt to change—be they short-term, long-term, temporary or permanent—will ensure your personal, professional and your business’ success.
Now let’s think beyond the pandemic. Imagine how your new superpowers of agility and flexibility can help you lead your company through the inevitable regional or local interruption in your business due to, for instance, a natural disaster or in the face of a more micro event such as a fire in your plant.
Taking the lessons you’ve learned in agility and flexibility, and of course the requisite planning for more predictable business interruptions, will yield dramatic results if you are ever faced with such an occurrence.
The fastest acceleration in innovation and adoption among businesses has been in technology; successful leaders who were not tech-savvy before the pandemic certainly are now.
Some of the technologies upon that we now rely so heavily in business also became critical to ensuring personal connections (e.g., Zoom, Slack, iMessage, WeChat) during the pandemic, which helped to boost adoption and reduce the fear of technology.
It probably also helped that, in addition to Zooming, many were also using technology for fitness (e.g., Peloton), mental health (e.g., Calm), physical health (e.g., telehealth), entertainment (e.g., Netflix), groceries (e.g., Instacart) and dining out, er, in (e.g., Door Dash)!
Your willingness to adopt new technology to get work done is going to serve you well not just during the waning days of the pandemic but for many years to come. Because while you may not be able to allow your production employees to work remotely (I mean, unless they all have flatwork ironers, tunnel washers or steam tunnels at home), for many employees work-from-home, at least for a portion of the workweek, may be here to stay.
As we’ve also learned, customers expect you to adopt new technologies for your interactions with them as well and, as a result, business travel and customer visits may have changed forever.
You would be wise, therefore, to ensure that your business has considered and created plans for videoconferencing, contactless proposals, e-signatures, and the like.
These three traits (agility, flexibility and digital literacy) are just a few of the new traits that today’s rapidly evolving business leaders need to adopt in order to ensure that they are fit to survive through and beyond the pandemic.
There are others, of course, including a healthy dose of humility, empathy, the ability to actively engage team members and build a healthy and collaborative company culture that fosters employees, raises up leaders who are honest, approachable, reasonable, consistent and fair.
As a friend in the industry recently mentioned to me, we’ve made it this far and times are still tough, but I am confident that leaders who adopt these new traits and allow themselves to evolve will emerge through the other side of the pandemic stronger and more successful than ever before.
I hope you are one of them!