Businesses faced some of their biggest ever challenges last year. While many organizations struggled to lead through challenges, we also saw excellent leaders emerge to help their teams flourish. As we learned from 2020, successful leaders will cultivate an environment that keeps employees inspired, engaged, and empowered in 2021.
How can you successfully lead your own teams this year?
To bring you the most important leadership trends of 2021, we turned to industry experts and, of course, successful leaders themselves to understand what’s ahead:
1. Act, instead of react
Leaders have incredible influence over the workplace experience. After the tumult of 2020, 2021 is the perfect time to shift from a prevention mindset—preventing turnover, burnout, and under-performance—to a mindset of promoting thriving. The absence of one is not necessarily the presence of the other. Leaders should focus on cultivating a workplace environment in which everyone can reach toward their potential.
–Josh Vaisman, Co-Founder at Flourish Veterinary Consulting
Despite leaders’ best intentions, it can be easy for band-aid solutions to be “too little, too late” in regards to ongoing culture issues. Instead, why not proactively introduce employee wellness, recognition, and other engagement initiatives?
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that you should consider your employees as humans first. Invest in them, and they’ll return it twofold.
As an advocate of Positive Leadership I firmly believe – and the science supports me in this – leaders must care for the people they lead in order to succeed. Business is, by its very nature, a human endeavor. If the people doing the work are not thriving, the business cannot thrive either.
–Josh Vaisman, Co-Founder at Flourish Veterinary Consulting
2. Pursue humility
Leaders are seeming to recognize the limits of their own humanity. From acknowledging mental illness challenges, ignorance on anti-Blackness and racism, and the pandemic's disproportionate impact on vulnerable employee populations like women and caregivers, leaders are reckoning with how to be a better person, not just a more profitable leader. It's uncomfortable and messy. It's necessary. We love to see it!
–Kalyn Wilson, CEO at Dream Forward Consulting
Leaders, by definition, have the power to make significant and impactful changes in the workplace. Executive leadership is largely dominated by a privileged class, and it’s time for them to understand, listen to, and help rise up underrepresented identities.
Leaders build leaders, not followers. Find out what motivates and empowers your team, and continuously find ways to build them up. Get to know your team beyond the work. Give them stretch projects and rewards for hard work.
–Latesha Byrd, CEO of Byrd Career Consulting
3. Make intentional decisions
"If 2020 has taught us anything, it is that leaders are more than capable of rising to the occasion. While most decisions and actions in 2020 were based on business continuity and surviving/thriving in a new environment, 2021 will be about making intentional decisions that will have lasting impact on your business and you as an employer."
–Abby Eaton Feinberg, Senior Brand and People Strategist at Bulldog Drummond
While you can never exactly predict what will come, you can do your best to plan and forecast for the year ahead. After a year of just trying to get by, many companies are ready to consider what they are and aren’t willing to invest in.
A tip: Always invest in your people and their employee experience. From utilizing recognition software to providing a wellness budget, your employees will pay you back with their productivity and engagement.
Showing up in the world is not a matter of circumstance, but a matter of perspective, intent, and action. When aligned, there is no greater gift to others. This is reflected in one of my favorite poems:
‘Two men looked up from prison bars. One saw mud, and one saw stars.’
–Linda Rad, Consultant and Coach at Envision Leadership Consulting
4. Evolve communication
Companies have had to shift quickly to remote communication as the COVID-19 pandemic urged us to work from home. In 2021, we face a similar challenge: How do we best communicate with hybrid teams, wherein employees return to the office in a phased approach?
Leaders need to make the shift to being comfortable with communicating async first. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that we don’t need to be on as many calls, meetings, or “quick chats” as we thought we did. Instead, leaders should make time to check their team’s dashboards, be okay with waiting for answers to non-urgent questions, and run sync as needed. This doesn’t mean that leaders shouldn’t still run their 1:1 or team meetings on a recurring basis, it just means that a lot of the non-urgent questions can be discussed during those meetings or asynchronously instead of all of the “quick chats” we were so used to having.
–Brennan McEachran, CEO at Hypercontext
What do hybrid meetings look like? What about team building events? Cultivating a more flexible, asynchronous workplace should be top of mind for leaders as their teams adjust to a more hybrid working environment.
5. Invest in professional development
As we continue to work from home, the focus of virtual employee development not just for employees is essential but also continued development for managers and leaders as they navigate leading remotely.
–Jessica Miller-Merrell, SHRM-SCP, SPHR, Chief Innovation Officer at Workology
Our 2020 Employee Engagement and Modern Workplace Report revealed that 89% of Highly Engaged Employees were satisfied with the professional development opportunities and training their companies provided, compared to only 36% of Actively Disengaged employees.
Career development opportunities continue to be high on employees’ priorities list, especially if there are more job opportunities available due to remote and distributed work.
You might not be in a place that lets you grow. Some leaders aren't mature enough to empower your entrepreneurial spirit. In this case, you will likely be faced with a choice to stay where you are or to make some uncomfortable moves. Whatever you do, remember that you cannot grow beyond where your leaders are willing to go.
–Branden Polk, CEO and Founder of Arrowhead Advising
6. Lead with compassion
Leading with compassion, starting with self-compassion. 2020 has been a trying year for all of us and 2021 is likely to be similar. Leaders need to practice self-compassion to support themselves, so they in turn can support the people they lead. Compassion leads to acceptance of our current state, which then allows us to move forward.
–Jahnavi Brenner, CPC, ELI-MP, Executive & Leadership Coach at The Vivid Leader
Is there anything else that needs to be said? These are trying and unprecedented times, but an unexpected bright spot is the new emphasis on compassionate and empathetic leadership.
2020 pushed the humanity of employees to the forefront, but those employees will still be parents and caregivers in 2021. Flexible and remote working arrangements went from an optional perk to a requirement for many. Now that workers and employees have seen the benefits of this type of work, don’t expect it to fade away.
Leaders have had to step up in a big way in 2020. It was a learning experience for all of us, but one that clarified the importance of positive leadership.
What mindsets will you shift as a leader?
For more tips and pointers, check out The Leadership Survival Kit: