New year, new leadership: 5 skills needed to succeed in 2021

Effective leadership has been imperative for business resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it hasn’t been easy.

Executives have had to completely reimagine their approach to how they lead, from where to how they communicate, and everything in between. We’ve seen an emphasis on softer skills (think: empathy, agility, etc.) that we expect to grow in importance as leaders across all industries continue to face uncertainty in 2021.

Guiding people through adversity is challenging, but the best leaders rise to the occasion and triumph. Below we deep dive into six leadership strategies that have stood out as most effective in 2020 and promise to propel leaders forward in 2021.

Empathetic leadership

As workers navigate personal and professional hardship from the coronavirus pandemic and its consequences, effective managers have learned that it is more important than ever to lead with empathy.

“As soon as the pandemic began, the characteristics of good leadership began to change alongside,” says Andrew Wilson, chief digital officer at Microsoft who oversees 4,500 people worldwide. “Leaders can no longer just be execution-driven. They also must be authentic and empathetic, while listening to their employees closely, checking for any signs of stress, and then react accordingly.”

Howard Boville, senior vice president of Hybrid Cloud at IBM, says that while he has always considered himself to be an empathetic leader, he is putting a bigger focus on making sure his employees are happy, healthy and focused.

“I spend a lot of time right now listening to my employees, checking in to see how they’re feeling and insisting they take time off to take care of themselves and their families,” he says.

Boville’s organization at IBM is spread out across the globe.. Though the regions are diverse and spread across multiple time zones, workers everywhere are being disrupted by the pandemic and it takes an emotional toll on them.

“The leadership team at IBM has been very mindful of the mental wellness of our employees,” he says. “As a result, we provide a wide range of guidance and counsel to people feeling burned out.”

Empathetic leaders also let their teams know that they sympathize with their difficulties, and show them that they too are experiencing hardships.

“Modeling that you, as a leader, are also being challenged in this difficult time is super important right now,” says Lorraine Bardeen, vice president and chief technology officer for Microsoft’s worldwide enterprise and commercial industries. “Your team needs to understand that everyone is going through something right now, and it is OK.”

To demonstrate this idea, Bardeen says she often folds laundry in front of the camera during all-hands meetings with hundreds of team members.

“I want my team to know that even though I have a lot on my plate right now, I am staying positive and connected to others,” she says. “My leadership style has always been very human and warm, but not quite this vulnerable. It is important to me to show this type of vulnerability right now.”

Empathy has been described as a “soft skill” that is overlooked as a performance indicator. However, research indicates that successful leaders must be more empathetic to help motivate others. About three quarters of employees last year said they believe an empathetic organization inspires more motivated employees, compared with 65 percent who said the same in 2019, according to Businessolver, an employee benefits administration technology company.

In some ways, it is easier than ever to be an empathetic leader as many people work from home and connect through video calls, sharing a look at each other’s living space, and ultimately into each other’s lives.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been connecting with everyone while we’re working at our dining room tables or with our families. That creates a different context for everyone,” says IBM’s Boville. “It softens the corporate approach and formality you have in an office. Even though we are not physically connected, we connect in a far more meaningful way.”

Creative leadership

We are experiencing a growth in creativity — within workplaces, industries, and society as a whole — and the continued development and importance of creativity as a fundamental skill is imperative.

As Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen says, we are entering the “Golden Age of Creativity,” and it is all about making connections. In today’s environment, that skill is more important and resonant than ever before.

“Creativity has become increasingly vital in all areas of business,” according to Duncan Egan, who leads marketing for Adobe’s digital experience (DX) enterprise and commercial business in Asia Pacific and Japan. Whether quality of output or impact of program, the addition of creativity to a workflow or process is important and noticeable. Creativity has real business impact which means leaders need to understand how to use it and cultivate it to get the most out of their teams and get ahead — or stay ahead — of their competition.

Creativity is multifaceted and, particularly when talking about creativity within organizational teams, there are five key areas where leaders can lean on creativity to impact business success.

To get the most out of their teams, creative leaders need to be facilitators in these five areas.

Agile leadership

Agile leaders are known for seamlessly balancing competing demands, fostering connections with team members and customers, enabling teams to achieve peak performance, and encouraging innovation and change. They are not afraid to take risks and rarely fear failure.

Since agile leaders can easily adapt to an ever changing and uncertain environment, COVID-19 has accelerated many organizations’ need for them.

“All of the challenges that came along this year forced us to let go of the notion of being perfect,” said John Travis, vice president of brand marketing at Adobe. “We’re learning so rapidly and adapting to change at a much faster pace. As a result, agility and risk-taking don’t feel as foreign as they once did. It has been a lesson in learning to let go.”

Indeed, Adobe prioritized that agile mindset when COVID-19 began and continued to ramp up its digital transformation to meet new consumer demands. The company quickly pivoted and reskilled employees and hired new ones with new sets of skills to keep pace with digital’s demands.

“Adobe was very early to digital, but we, too, had to stretch the bounds of what it means to be agile during COVID-19,” said Ann Lewnes, Adobe’s CMO, in an American Marketing Association Journal of Marketing article published Dec. 11.”

Now more than ever we have found that the ability to monitor and quickly identify shifts in the marketplace and customer base, rapidly respond and shift direction, reskill and bring in new talent, and consistently measure impact in real-time have become requirements for modern marketers,” Lewnes said.

Ultimately, Adobe knew it had to be agile to move forward and will be focused on agility as a leadership technique in 2021 and beyond. The key, according to the Journal of Marketing paper by Lewnes, is communicating goals and priorities effectively and then stepping back and trusting your team to execute on your vision. A big part of being an agile leader means removing all of the layers of approvals that large organizations typically institute.

Because employees are still responsible for delivering results, “it’s important for me to be clear about our goals and what our team needs to do to reach those goals instead of leaving it up to their interpretation,” she says. “People need to know what ‘good’ looks like so they can do the work.”

Laura Butler, senior vice president of people and culture at Workfront, an Adobe company, agrees. “People need more focus than ever right now to keep moving forward,” she says, adding that she has prioritized strengthening her team’s goal setting skills right now.

Collaborative leadership

Needless to say, COVID-19 has presented leaders with a great deal of uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. No one person has the knowledge or experience to solve these problems alone — it requires multiple people with different kinds of expertise and the ability to work together to create novel solutions.

Collaborative leadership brings managers, executives and staff out of silos to work together. Unlike traditional top-down organizational models — where a small group of executives control the flow of information — with collaborative leadership, information is shared organically and everyone takes equal responsibility.

Collaborative leaders regularly seek a diverse set of opinions and ideas amongst teammates to build strategies and solve problems, according to Harvard Business Review. As a result, employees are more engaged, feel trusted and are more likely to take ownership of their work.

For Butler, collaborative leadership has become even easier to execute during the pandemic thanks to the nature of remote work.

For example, people from a variety of departments — such as human resources or marketing — are getting invited to meetings they may not have been invited to in the past.

Butler says that collaborative leadership has become even easier to execute during the pandemic thanks to the boundaryless nature of remote work. With most or many employees working outside the office, meetings and brainstorm sessions can easily include people from a variety of departments, roles and geographies, both inside and outside of the company.

These new kinds of collaborations bring a diversity of perspective and experience to the table. And, because of this collective input, Butler says Workfront’s output has never been stronger.

“Our output during this pandemic has been extraordinary,” she says. “Our product releases have been more robust and thoughtful, and more impactful to our customers.”

Microsoft’s Bardeen, who manages 30 people with diverse roles such as software engineers, user experience designers, technical analysts and strategists, agrees.

“I’ve always been passionate about multidisciplinary teams,” she says. “Diverse teams produce the highest quality, most thoughtful and most impactful work.”

Flexible leadership

Amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, along with the fact that employees are working from home and thereby disrupting how teams work together, flexibility is an increasingly important trait among business leaders. Flexible managers can change their leadership styles in response to their team members’ differing needs and as the circumstances demand. They’re willing to revise their plans to incorporate new innovations and overcome challenges while still achieving their goals.

“Employees react to situations very differently. Leadership isn’t just about getting people to do something, it’s also about being aware of these varied reactions and shaping our leadership style to support them,” says Microsoft’s Wilson.

Flexible leadership also means being less rigid about traditional business procedures.

“Employees today need extra time to breathe, so if they need to take an hour here or there to run an errand, for example it’s totally fine by me,” says Ian Leslie, chief marketing officer of Industry West, a business-to-business and direct-to-consumer furniture retailer.

Since some of West’s salaried workers have worked long hours during the pandemic to keep things running smoothly, he has encouraged them to take the occasional day off without docking it as a vacation day.

“People really appreciate these small gestures, especially right now,” he says.

This past year has been an extremely challenging year for many companies, and unfortunately, some of those challenges will likely stick around in 2021. To succeed in the year ahead — and beyond — leaders must form a plan that can help them tackle these challenges head on, and ultimately, move forward in a positive direction. Leaders adopting any, or all of these leadership styles will be on the right path to success.