Reflections on the year just concluded is a popular activity for early January.  Leaders think back on what worked, what didn’t, and what they would like to be or do differently in the following year.  Where did the annual operating plan achieve its metrics? What strategic initiatives made progress? How did the team handle the challenges thrown its way in the past 12 months?

Reflecting is a valuable activity, since to understand is usually the first step to change.  But I want to propose a slightly different task for this January – why don’t you write your annual review for 2021 twelve months early?

Preposterous? Impossible? How can we know what will happen you might ask?  Yet I’d challenge you that much more is known than you might think.

Think about the last year.  While the business conditions and resulting numbers may have been shocking if you’d pondered them in January 2020, there is lot that was known.  I’d suggest you know the four most important components that will make up your 2021 success:

  1. Yourself. 2020 required all of us to change – to think through the kind of human leaders we want to be, whether it’s in our professional or personal lives.  As Joel Manby, ex-CEO of SeaWorld says, “Your people will not remember everything that happened in 2020, but they will remember how you led them.”  So how will you lead in 2021?  In your 2021 Review record the events – whether virtual or in-person – where you demonstrated the characteristics of leadership you want to display.  Empathy during the annual all-hands meeting?  Transparency when discussing achievement against the 2020 plan? Agility to shift to the undetermined 2021 challenges? Encouragement to keep going into the second year of a pandemic that has stressed everyone more than we realize? Persistence to keep moving an organization towards the post-COVID normal when energy lags?  The only right set of meetings and attributes are the ones you want to practice.  Develop a short list of who you will be when.
  2. Your strongest team members. The people who have contributed the most to your 2020 organizational success were the ones you would have named in January.  Stars shine brightest in the darkness.  As you reflect on 2021, how did you help them grow?  When were the coaching sessions held that challenged and honed them?  Training Magazine data shows that retention of top performers increases by 50% when they are effectively coached.  By helping them become better, they see the organization, and you as their leader, more positively.  Give them guidance and freshen their skills and watch them contribute even more.
  3. Your team culture. Drucker’s famous quote about “culture eating strategy for lunch” was never truer than in 2020.  The teams that dispersed and delivered were those with strong, positive cultures built on trust and respect.  Those with unclear expectations or were untrusted (usually demonstrated through micromanagement) floundered.  As you reflect on 2021, how did you demonstrate you were committed and invested in your team?  In the mid-1990s, I worked for a VP of Sales who called his entire team into a sales meeting, showed up late, called one person out of the meeting and fired them, then returned to the meeting to tell everyone “they were his team, and he was committed to them.”  Six months later 90% had voluntarily left the company.  I’d suggest an early 2021 anonymous survey to measure trust levels – how they trust you, their peers and the people in other departments.  Then use the results for a team discussion that starts with your trust level in them. (Note: if you don’t trust them, why are they on the team?) It should be noted that organizations with high levels of trust weathered layoffs and salary reductions significantly better than those without.
  4. Your team mission. What is your organization all about?  Whatever else, it’s usually about servicing and delighting another group of people – customers, students, sister departments in an organization.  COVID didn’t change that.  As you reflect back on 2021, how successful did you execute the mission? Numbers provide a quantitative yard stick, but mission is usually qualitative.  How did you measure true progress and success?  Regardless of the financial challenges of 2020, did your clients feel well serviced?  Did they think more highly of your organization through the year?  Those organizations valued the highest by financial markets are the ones built around passionate customers.  Where do you rank you when compared to the Teslas, Starbucks and Pelotons of the world?

Key performance indicators and the plan remain unpredictable right now.  Will the vaccine mean we can return to in-person in Q1? Q2? The second half?  I don’t know.  But what is known is the 4 components above are critical for successful organizations in 2021.  They all start with you and your leadership.

Are you ready? What kind of year was 2021?