Looking to 2021: 6 Questions Successful Leaders are Asking

As we begin a new year, many are doing so with the hope of leaving 2020 firmly behind them. It was undoubtedly a year that presented more challenges, obstacles, and change than any of us expected, but it was also full of practical lessons.

The business leaders that will stand apart in the 2021 marketplace are the ones who intentionally reflect on what they learned in the last twelve months with a spirit of curiosity, humility, and growth. Consider these six questions to glean important takeaways to shape your strategies for 2021 and beyond.

How have our customers’ needs changed, and how can we increase our value to them in 2021?

When is the last time you had lunch or dinner with one of your major clients?  We are living and operating during a period where the services and products you used to create value may not be as relevant as they were one year ago. Every business is different, and some factors may not affect your industry as it would with others. But it is very helpful to have a well-rounded framework that helps you consider the factors that could affect you along with the ones that will affect you.

One of the most common and timeless methods for discovering and quantifying those factors is the PEST analysis. PEST is an acronym for political, economic, social and technological. It’s a way of understanding how external forces impact your business. It was created by Harvard professor Francis Aguilar in 1967. Consider gathering key members of your leadership and completing a PEST analysis in order to identify the ways your business can respond to the changes that 2020 brought to the market for your industry.

What did our competitors do well in 2020, and where did they fall short?

Some competitors flourished in 2020, while others faltered. The competitive advantages that helped you grow prior to March of 2020 might not be enough to allow your company to successfully compete in 2021 and beyond. In most industries, there are several new competitors who are grabbing the attention (and money) from your customers.

At the same time, the relationships that you once enjoyed are much harder to maintain that they once were. In most cases, you can’t simply rely on your sales team to tell you what your customers want and need.

It is critical that you and your management team have a clear sense of the competitive environment. Investing in competitive intelligence will serve your organization well in 2021, so revisit SWOT analyses and competitor research with fresh eyes:

  • Branding and messaging
  • Marketing channels
  • Digital capabilities (online ordering functionalities, etc.)
  • Customer engagement (some competitors may have been forced to close or were unable to maintain service at the same level)

What are we doing to compete in an increasingly digital world?

2020 was a year we worked with many of our clients to think about evolving from an analog to a digital world. Most small to midsize business are still far behind when it comes to leading with a digital footprint vs an analog footprint. With many traditional sales and marketing tactics made virtually impossible in 2020, this evolution is critical.

This “digital transformation” is a rewiring of your existing organization so that your physical product becomes smarter, your go-to-market models become more digital, and your internal operations become at least two times as efficient.

It is important to treat this transformation not as a single event, but as an ongoing process.  For example, Amazon is setting aside $700 million to retrain their entire organization on its digital capabilities. Despite being one of the most tech-savvy companies in the world, they realize that this is not a static goal but a constant reinvestment. This is the difference between a company that is just starting to think about digital literacy and the one that is truly digital.

Continue evaluating each asset of your business to identify opportunities to improve your product or service, go-to-market models, and your internal operations:

  • Web presence
  • Creating demand digitally (social selling, paid and organic media, etc.)
  • Working with partners
  • Engaging customers in a digital way (email marketing, social media, personalization)
  • Data analytics
  • Manufacturing technology
  • Supply chain integration

What does it mean to lead a workforce that is increasingly virtual?

Leading a team that is no longer in a shared physical space creates different expectations from employees and different communication requirements. It requires a whole new set of skills that have never been mastered by today’s leaders.

You are responsible for reshaping the behaviors and the motivations of your organization so that teams act with agility, urgency, and enthusiasm, similar to the environment of a startup. This is not simply about changing or swapping out older technology for digital technologies; in order to sustain a true advantage and maintain momentum with your employees, you must change the living DNA of the organization.

Foster an environment of personal responsibility, contribution, and risk-taking. Reward the behaviors you wish to cultivate and invest in the future leaders that will carry that vision with them as they grow alongside your organization.

How am I developing leaders at every level of my organization?

This year has shown us the importance of having capable, loyal employees that are willing to step up to new challenges. It has also caused many leaders to consider their plans for transition; for many, what used to be a far-off task now feels closer than ever.

Effective leadership is about more than just what happens at the very top of an organization. In order for a business to succeed in the new cultural and economic environment we are in, leaders should be considering both the short-term and long-term plan for taking their mission and vision into the future.

As you identify and invest in future leaders, remember that the old rules of communication have been completely upended. You cannot simply dictate expectations and expect that your team will know what to do next. With the pace of change forever quickened, ensure that you are clearly communicating vision, goals, and objectives to those you wish to become stewards of those things at each level of your organization.

What gaps exist internally that need to be addressed in the new year?

2020 has been a year of distractions—organizations were forced to operate in “survival mode” for months at a time. Indeed, this was necessary; however, it may mean that gaps in processes, systems, or skills went unnoticed.

Use 2021 as an opportunity to evaluate your internal operations. Identify and create a plan to optimize important areas of your business that affect its functioning and, ultimately, its financial results.

While it tempting to think you can keep up with the pace of change by simply upgrading software, that mindset is the recipe for frustration. It is essential to take off the rose-colored glasses and truly compare your business to that of competitors and more importantly, to what your customers want and need. This means honestly evaluating your workflows and systems, team structures, roles, and responsibilities, and competencies within your organization.

We are all hoping that 2021 looks much different than 2020. But as a leader, you are in control of that reality for your business: take these important learnings from last year into this one and you will be positioned to see more success than ever in the months ahead.