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What a time to be a leader?!

We recently blogged about ensuring your strategy has embraced a review of the external forces impacting your business, organisation / charity.  So how is your organisation placed, given these external forces, many of which have become more important to us during the pandemic? What might you as a leader need to be focusing during 2021?

Our recommended top 7 areas of leadership focus for 2021 are:

1. Leader self-awareness

2021 is predicted to be a transformative one for many businesses.  Leaders are being charged with adapting to new ways of working with their teams, whilst managing an evolving relationship with consumers.  The need to refuel personally and also reshape businesses in need of new direction, has never been greater, yet three-quarters of workers reported burn-out in 2020.[1]

Leaders must gain a level of self-awareness with regard to their own self-care and ‘invest in themselves’ through good diet, exercise and sleep, whilst learning to process their emotions in relation to the events of 2020.  There is good reason why the Chartered Management Institute has called Covid-19, “the ultimate test of management and leadership”.

Peer support structures and internal collaboration are paramount.  Embracing the essence of ‘in this together’ within the everyday workplace environment is vital and decision-making now has to be swift and more intuitive.  Managerial humility – of the kind advocated by Schein (2013) in his book ‘Humble Inquiry’ is hugely important.  2021 will be a year in which managers and leaders have to admit they don’t have all the answers and will and do get things wrong. It will be one in which they need to ask more questions of their teams, listen to team feedback and act upon it, whilst devoting more time to leadership development.


Information sharing, internal communication and the need to empower individual team members will distinguish the year.  McKinsey suggests leaders will need to combine “deliberate calm” with “bounded optimism” – a blend of positivity and realism.[2]

It also comments that: “During a crisis, leaders must relinquish the belief that a top-down response will engender stability.”

Transparency within leadership is vital during 2021 and authenticity has to underpin all leadership actions, with a spirit of employee engagement at the forefront of every decision-making process.  Openness and honesty between managers and employees will need to be the ‘new normal’.

The benefits of enhanced collaborative working will be reaped in terms of higher productivity, boosted morale and greater empathy between co-workers, all of which can bring competitive advantage and the likelihood of fewer employment tribunals and HR issues.  Greater collaboration will underpin the sense of ‘building back better’ and should create new levels of trust in corporate leaders which, in turn, leads to higher levels of engagement and retention.

3. Agility

Cognitive behaviours will be under the microscope as business leaders ask themselves who they are now and who they need to be, to take their business forward in a time epitomised by the acronym VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.[3]

‘Updating’ is likely to be a key action, according to McKinsey, this translating as the need for leaders to continually revise decisions and strategies as new information becomes available. Having time to think and assess the value of actions will be important to all organisations and reviewing and tweaking – or changing strategies entirely – will not be a sign of weakness but of strength.

Decision-making will take place within tighter timeframes and that in itself will add a new spine of support to organisations, with employees respecting visible decisiveness, particularly if decision-makers later admit that the decision was not quite right.

Changing tack and agile leadership will come to be respected more, with the requirement to deal with uncertainty being recognised as one of the most significant challenges that leaders face.  With dynamics changing as fast as they are at present, it is vital that leaders process situations and data quickly but also adopt a personal growth mentality and onboard any skills that they require, as they navigate these choppy waters.

4. Wellbeing in the Workplace

Maintaining the duty of care for employees that the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) requires, will be tricky in 2021.  More than two-thirds of employees believe the pandemic will have serious impacts on their wellbeing and yet the stigma of seeking expert help still exists.  Employers need to be just as mindful about the health of remote workers as office-based employees and yet may have less opportunity to assess their situations.

Leaders will need to know their employees better and be able to demonstrate higher levels of empathy, whilst simultaneously having the capacity to accept reciprocal empathy from their staff and take on board observations about their own health.

Flexibility of work style may need to be offered as part of corporate wellness, particularly if staff have become accustomed to remote working.  Regular, independent surveys of employees may be needed in bigger organisations and more effort devoted to remote teambuilding and virtual wellness programmes, which incorporate health and wellbeing advice, exercise and team activities.

Particular areas requiring attention could be task duplication frustrations, brought about through distancing between the team under remote working, and the mental health impacts of Imposter Syndrome, which nearly half of all UK employees say they suffered whilst remote working in 2020.[4]

We recommend:

  • agreeing and writing a company mental health policy, set within a broader employee well-being strategy
  • mental health awareness sessions for all
  • up-skilling your managers and leaders, so they can recognise mental health challenges and how to handle them

5. Working Remotely

Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25%–30% of the workforce will be working from home several days a week by the end of 2021.  The desire for virtual and flexible working is probably here to stay Europe-wide, with 70-80% of employees interested in remote or flexible working post-Covid.  A high level of organisational flexibility may be required, however, to build multiple work styles into a company’s working structure.  Working from home does not suit all and with a skills and talent gap evident across many UK businesses, different options may be required, whenever working life can return to normal.

We have more on this topic coming next month, when our resident ‘virtual working’ expert Gwen Stirling-Wilkie, will be sharing some valuable insight.  However, for now, we believe this situation will have ongoing implications for:

  • the mastering of remote working processes
  • increasing the ‘virtual impact capabilities’ of your staff to maximise ‘dialogue’ outcomes and collaboration
  • exploring the new possibilities for increasing leadership impact and presence, when leading and influencing solely online
  • a slightly boring one (sorry) – health & safety of workstations and ensuring work spaces are optimised from an H&S point of view

6. Diversity & Inclusion

The impact of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was huge in 2020 and this continues to be seen almost daily in sport, through the taking of the knee, and now even in storylines within soap operas.   Undoubtedly, being shown to embrace diversity, in all of its aspects, will matter in 2021 and this needs to go beyond race, with age, disability, religion, gender and sexual orientation also being areas in which absolute equality of opportunity needs to be offered.

Good people management revolves around promoting and supporting workplace diversity and it is increasingly becoming evident that key focuses for 2021 will be intersectionality – where there is discrimination or disadvantage based on multiple social categories – and also, neurodiversity.  If you are not familiar with the latter, this is discrimination and disadvantage for those encountering difficulties posed by ADHD, dyslexia, autism and other neurological conditions.

Workplaces must foster environments in which every employee’s contribution matters and where all staff have a sense of belonging, regardless of background, beliefs, health conditions or principles.  This should strengthen businesses, providing stronger collaboration, motivation and team spirit.  It should also bolster brands, boost employee retention and make talent recruitment easier.  All businesses should recognise the strengths of diverse workforces.

7. Customer Relevance

Staying relevant in the marketplace will be a challenge in 2021.  Many organisations have already shifted their focus from sales to customer retention and relationship-building strategies.  The new buzzword is ‘helpful marketing’ – summed up as being the quest not to ‘sell’, but to add value, create dialogue, communicate, listen to customer feedback and become totally customer-centric.

The 2021 customer outreach strategy will consist of advice, tips, valuable information provided free of charge, partnering and transparent and regular communication.  It will build trust in an organisation’s honesty and integrity and will be distinguished through authenticity.  Brand storytelling will be key and PR and copywriting will never have mattered so much, according to 64% of UK decision-makers.[5]  People will look to thought-leaders and consumers will seek to build long-lasting relationships with brands – and brands with which they can easily interact and with whom contact is easy, when necessary.

SMS communications between companies and customers have increased by 33% in the pandemic[6] and these have focused on advice, not sales.  Brands need to live up to their brand values, or face losing the trust of customers and relevance amongst consumers in general.

Brands and businesses really do need to ‘keep it real’ in 2021.


There is much more to say about 2021’s challenges and we are here to help you through them, with all the resources you require in what could be one of the most challenging business years we have ever experienced.  In the meantime, read on to find out what some are saying and please get in touch, if you need help.


Working from home is here to stay.  Who has said what?

  • Microsoft announcedit is “embracing a flexible workplace,” acknowledging there is no “one-size-fits-all solution” for the company’s range of roles and needs. After the health crisis, it said working from home part of the time will be the new norm.
  • Siemensbegan allowing “mobile working” two to three days a week as its new global standard. “COVID-19 gives us a chance to reshape our world and reimagine work,” said deputy CEO Roland Busch.
  • Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy has also predicted that workers will not return to the office 100% of the time. “I think there’s going to be some type of hybrid model,” he said, “and I think it will probably differ depending on your job function.”








 [5 & 6]