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  • Writer's pictureRita Simmons

Leadership Lessons Learned

More than a year into the pandemic, we are following up on our leadership series, “Redefining Leadership in our New Normal”. We consider how leaders have adapted and managed through the crisis, what they have learned, how their priorities changed, and what they see as the future state of business and leadership.⁠ We explore the results of the 2021 Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey and identify the key 7 leadership themes in detail below.

1. Innovative and Proactive Change

Proactivity and innovation were attitudes and actions that saved many companies. One such leader is Stefanie Hill, Managing Vice President of Pariveda Solutions, when interviewed she said one of the most important lessons of the last year was that change is inevitable. But, instead of going from one static state to another static state, Hill said “it’s better to recognize we are in a dynamic system and architect our organizations’ capabilities to be adaptable and resilient. To embark on a continuous journey to sense, learn, and adapt while positioning ourselves to invent our future instead of reacting to change.” When I was in leadership positions in the Navy, I would share a very similar message with the leaders serving with me, “ the one constant in the military is change, so I would recommend keeping your head up, recognize the coming change, and position your team to leverage the change for the good of your personnel and the mission.” Business leaders who had the courage to think outside the box and leverage their talents and capabilities weathered the storm very well.

2. Empathy

Over 98% of survey respondents said that they have increased empathy for others since the start of the pandemic. Empathy has always been a highly valued leadership trait, but the pandemic has now pushed leaders to actually ‘walk the talk’ of empathy and take better care of employees. According to Sheldon Yellen, CEO of BELFOR Property Restoration, showing people you care about more than the work they do is vital during any crisis. He rightly points out that “Your team members have families, loved ones, and communities, just like you do, and great leadership through this crisis means breaking down those barriers, communicating that you’re committed to supporting them, and showing them you care through every single action.”

The overwhelming demands that the pandemic placed on parents has caused stress, fatigue, and in many cases caused parents to depart the work force. Leaders who picked up on this early realized they needed to ensure that leaders and managers check in with their team members and see if they or the company could help support them. One such CEO is Patti Johnson, of PeopleResults, she found a renewed focus on intentionally checking in with people—and doing whatever she could to offer help when they need it, was extremely helpful for employees. According to Johnson, “The past year has made me work harder to translate concern and connection into action”. Thinking more about who needs a check-in, who needs a care package, and who just needs to talk she continued by saying…”I’ve realized that as a leader, personal connection is as much an important part of my day and week as any client meeting or deliverable.”

3. People-Centered Approach

There were several big companies that stepped up and put their people first during the pandemic, companies like Starbucks, Microsoft, and Verizon. Verizon led with policies that demonstrated their people-centered approach to crisis management. Since the pandemic quickly merged and blurred our work and personal lives, Verizon saw that they needed to address the whole human being and not just the "worker". So, they put remote work policies in place to address their employees' total needs. Next, they recognized that millions of families relied on daycare and in-person school, and acknowledged how critical this infrastructure was for women in particular to remain in the workforce. Verizon did not see the childcare crisis as a personal problem for their employees to solve independently. Instead, they viewed it as a societal problem that was their shared responsibility to solve along with their employees. Beyond pivoting to remote work, they created additional crisis management responses, including reimbursing employees for backup daycare programs, and offering caregiver leave that mirrored short-term disability benefits.

This was just one example. The vast majority of companies are permanently shifting their focus from a business-centered to a people-center model and retaining many of these critical programs as things begin to open and return to our new normal.

4. Communication

Strong internal communication plays a crucial role in keeping employees informed and engaged, especially in uncertain times. During the pandemic, many leaders spoke more regularly and openly with staff than they ever had before. Transparency established the basis for the kind of regular communication linked to strong employee engagement.

Tom Niehaus, Executive Vice President at CTG, believes that a focus on communication, engagement, and execution are the keys to overcoming obstacles in a crisis and building a stronger future. Focusing on these three things has allowed his company to remain nimble in response to rapidly shifting market dynamics. For most companies, market changes have been moving quickly, and to enact quick decision making it’s critical to keep everyone informed and engaged.

But even beyond transparent communications, managers and team leaders' roles will be evolving as we continue to pivot and shape what work will look like in the future. Many firms are moving toward a coaching model where managers facilitate problem-solving and employees' development by asking questions and offering support and guidance rather than giving orders and making judgments. There will be an emphasis on teamwork, valuing input, and developing collective ideas and solutions.

5. Adaptability

Some of our clients had a hybrid workforce prior to the pandemic, but most had a more tradition in-office model. One client that had previously resisted moving to a remote workforce, pivoted their business model in response to the pandemic. The CEO admitted that prior to the pandemic they thought it was not logistically feasible to move to a remote work environment, but we are now seeing it is not only possible, but in some cases more efficient. Many senior leaders see this lesson as a major win for the future of work, the strategies used in the past year can be used to map out the potential approach for future disruptions.

6. Resiliency

The recruiting site Indeed recently reported that employee burnout has gotten worse over the last year. More than half (52%) of workers feel burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened throughout the pandemic. There are multiple employee surveys that show that, instead of remote work being some kind of nirvana, employees are actually feeling anxious, stressed, and emotionally drained.

When you work where you live and the boundaries of work and life go beyond blurred to basically erased, people have their resiliency tested and many have no reserves left. While companies cannot provide the total solution, they can be mindful of the stresses on their employees and work with them to build healthier habits into the workday.

80% of respondents to Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends survey identified well-being as an important or very important priority for their organization's success. But what we are seeing in practice is that many organizations miss the opportunity to integrate wellness into the business scheme. It will require that organizations make employee wellness and care a part of the organizational vision and values. Some companies are experimenting with 4-day work weeks, no Zoom Fridays, and other policies that help employees unplug, recharge, and take care of themselves.

7. Align with Social Purpose

In a previous episode of the Inside Scoop with Novelle we discussed how some companies were emerging from the early fog of the pandemic and taking the opportunity to create change for the greater good. Many leaders now understand that they need to think beyond the zero-sum mindset and instead, seek to create collective value in a world increasingly waking up to systemic challenges like climate change, finite natural resources, and growing inequality and conflict.

One example is in adopting cleaner technologies. Businesses that embraced clean energy during the pandemic are generating profits, creating better jobs, and having positive impacts on the environment. They are also keeping their staff happy, which in turn is good for business. Another study by Deloitte found that purpose-driven companies have higher productivity and growth rates, along with a more engaged workforce. If purpose over profits can improve productivity, this could be a winning strategy, for everyone.

Overall, what have leaders learned? They must embrace creativity, adaptability, and empathy to survive in our ever-changing business landscape. By incorporating these changes and recognizing that people are what powers businesses, and that they need to be valued, leaders will come out of this crisis stronger and prepared for the future.


Rita Simmons, Ph.D., is the founder and lead consultant of Novelle, where she provides business and research consulting to companies across a variety of industries. Dr. Simmons leverages her drive for innovation and excellence along with her extensive executive and military experience to help companies grow their business, drive revenue, and achieve strategic goals. When you’re ready to take your business to the next level, contact Dr. Simmons at or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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