To say leaders faced unforeseen challenges this year is a major understatement. But a silver lining to these setbacks is leaders had the opportunity, time and again, to improve leadership skills as they moved along their daunting journey. And although for many financial targets were hard to predict or meet, many leaders ended up grounding themselves around their people, purposes and customers over the past year.

I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on my own learnings as well as the perspectives of members and Chairs at Vistage who have led organizations around the world during this difficult time. The lessons below are gathered from thousands of leaders in regard to how culture, client and employee relationships transformed during the past year. While we can’t predict the future, the most successful leaders are taking knowledge gained from setbacks and triumphs over the past year and using it to their advantage as they fuel their businesses into the New Year.

  • Respect employees, and encourage them to show respect for each other. The way many of us worked transformed overnight. And as employees stepped up to the task, leaders have shown respect for their employees by being flexible with daily protocol. Many leaders have allowed employees room to adjust their daily routines. Leaders recognize that employees are whole people with complex lives. They are checking in more frequently with their employees, genuinely listening to how they are doing in all aspects of their lives, and ensuring employees feel appreciated.
  • Reinforce your company’s purpose as your North Star. Leaders who hold on to old mindsets make it harder to adapt to new ideas and changes within the organization. This year, many CEOs found a renewed sense of purpose – far beyond revenue targets – and leveraged that as a reference point to what they do and why. They communicated that purpose passionately, transforming it from a statement on a wall to a North Star their team could rally around, and brought the purpose to life in every aspect of their business. This has kept businesses across the world on track in extraordinarily difficult circumstances, but it also has energized employees and reassured them that they work for the right company.
  • Work to keep customer loyalty. It is said that a new customer costs seven times more than an existing one. But CEOs know that the best relationships with customers are almost never purely transactional.  Successful leaders recognize that customer loyalty in large part depends on how their customers are treated – both in the best of times and the most difficult.  Leaders who showed flexibility and empathy and brought forth new innovations to customers over the past year strengthened customer relationships.  In a year when customer needs rapidly changed, customers rewarded companies that were responsive and agile.
  • Identify your company’s biggest challenges, then learn from them. Over the past year, many leaders have had to innovate and overcome extraordinary challenges just to stay afloat.  While many faced the obvious challenges brought on by the pandemic, others identified internal, operational and fiscal obstacles of which they weren’t aware.  Leaders have learned to be flexible in order to meet customers’ changing needs, adapted to working virtually and pivoted along the way. The most successful leaders have quickly determined what their company’s pain points have been, and leveraged those to guide the path forward.
  • Prepare for the unknown. While none of us know for sure what lies ahead, we do know the next quarter will be tough for consumers and many businesses.  Most leaders discovered they were better able to gauge success in 2020 when they worked in quarter-by-quarter sprints, rather than trying to stick to their annual plans. Many leaders are using this shorter operational rhythm while maintaining their long-term mission, purpose, vision, and values. Of course they are focused on financials, but they recognize that isn’t the only indicator of success. Leaders now have a renewed sense of purpose that enables them to pivot to face the unknown.

After a whirlwind year, many leaders are now looking back and taking stock of the things they wish they knew before the pandemic hit. They are thinking about how this year has affected their leadership style and decisions.  CEOs are taking the learnings from this year, and becoming more agile, more open to new ideas and authentically connecting with their team. They are identifying and using leadership lessons from this past year to strengthen themselves and their companies for the year ahead.

Sam Reese is CEO of Vistage, the world’s largest CEO coaching and peer advisory organization for small and midsize businesses. Over his 35-year career as a business leader, Sam has led large and midsize organizations and has advised CEOs and key executives of companies all over the world. To learn how a peer advisory group can help you navigate challenges, make better decisions and achieve growth, visit vistage.com.

Leadership stock photo by Flamingo Images/Shutterstock