A Leader’s Letter for 2021
As the son of a proud Scottish mother New Year is more about libations than lists but, in so many ways, 2020 has been a year of the new, the novel, the different and…errr…the unprecedented.
So here is a set of New Year’s Resolutions.
Not as a list, but in the form of a letter written by someone given the privilege and opportunity to lead others through these difficult times. As so many have showed us in 2020, leadership is not about your title, seniority, rank or position. You can be a CEO, a country manager or a charity worker; those are merely a description, not a definition.
Being a leader is about rallying others to a cause that you all feel passionate about.
It’s about unleashing all the incredible talents and skills of your colleagues, friends and families. It’s about unlocking all those incredible human skills of creativity, collaboration, hope, optimism — and love — that have put men on the moon, put the world into a device in your palm, created numerous vaccines in less than a year, ended decade-long conflicts and turned enemies into allies and friends.
Leadership has done all those things.
And, Dear Reader, you have the capacity to lead.
So, this letter is for you. To share. To customize. To expand upon.
But mostly, it’s to give you permission to be that leader. The one you would follow. The one you’ve been waiting to appear. The one quietly slumbering inside of you.
Welcome back to the 1st day of 2021.
I recognize how ironic that line is as you’re likely reading this sat at the same dining room table, corner nook or home office you’ve been sequestered in for much of 2020. And, despite the very best efforts of our politicians, scientists and healthcare workers, we’re likely to be at for several months yet.
I don’t intend for this note to be gloomy or despondent. Far from it. However, I’ve too much respect for each of you to give you puffy platitudes and empty exhortations. 2020 was remarkably tough for all of us — not just here at the company but also across our clients, our customers and our partners. No-one was untouched by COVID-19 and we are by no means out of the woods yet.
Be under no illusion, 2021 will be tough. Likely it will be as tough as 2020 because we’re all fatigued by this constant pressure. I know I am. And I know each of you are in your own way. It will require us going back again to that same reservoir of resilience, grit, adaptability and fortitude that we used time and again last year.
This letter is also not intended to serve as a rallying cry. It’s not a note asking you to do more for this company, to dig deeper, to work harder, to deliver more. You did that ceaselessly and selflessly in 2020 and I have every confidence you’ll do the same in the tough months ahead. That’s just the type of people you are and why I am so grateful you’ve chosen to bring your creativity and ingenuity here.
No, this letter is about something I believe is infinitely more important to the fortunes of this company and to each of you as my colleagues.
This is about my personal commitment to each of you for 2021 and every year that we remain in business.
I’ve spent time over the holidays reflecting on leadership and my own leadership style and behaviours. I’ve also had the good fortune of counsel from my wife, and my children who are several years into their own careers and have had leadership experiences, good and bad, of their own. Several dear friends shared their perspectives on being a leader too. While direct, and often hard to hear, their feedback forced me to realize that, despite my very best intentions and my deep passion to lead with integrity and empathy, I’ve not always gotten it right.
I vow to do better by you in 2021. Here are some reflections and resolutions that I hope will ensure I do.
I do not have all the answers.
I have worked at this company for over a decade. I know it intimately and am proud of everything we’ve achieved. However, there is just no way I can know everything about what we do, what we should do and what we could do better. Thinking I know everything limits all of us to my biases, prejudices, preconceptions and misconceptions. And, for the record, it’s an incredible burden to carry — despite how broad my shoulders might be.
My promise is to be more open to opinions and perspectives that differ from my own. To listen attentively, not defensively, and to recognize that in the feedback of people who have different experiences and expertise may lie exactly the answers we do need.
I will make mistakes — and I want you too as well.
Heaven knows, I’ve made several to get us here. And I will inevitably make others in the months ahead. They are never deliberate, but they will happen. Let me be explicitly clear on this — we must embrace making mistakes. And, as important, we must acknowledge them, and we must learn from them. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not pushing ourselves hard enough. We’re not trying enough new things. And, we’re definitely not learning how far and how fast this company can go. That doesn’t mean we can be reckless and undisciplined, but it does mean I want you to push harder, question our sacred cows and ask “why not” more often. And I do not want rank, title or your colleague’s seniority to stifle you. Not pushing hurts us, it doesn’t help us.
In 2021, I expect that of you (and you should expect it of me) but I accept we’ll not always get it right. When we do stumble though, I want to know what we learned, not just what we did, and what we’re going to do with that new knowledge. That is how this organization will grow.
I will trust you more and be more transparent.
This will be hard for me. Make no mistake. It’s not that I believe anyone of you are untrustworthy — after all we hired you. Keeping information from you, and keeping a very tight group of counsel, is a form of protectionism on my part. However, in seeking to protect this organization, I now recognize I’ve limited this organization too. We’ve accumulated a truly brilliant group but if we don’t give you full access to everything going on, how can we ever expect you to make sound decisions, develop new ideas and have the impact we hired you to deliver?
My promise is to trust you more. And to ensure that all of our Executives and Business Leads are equally open with you. To be more transparent with the information you need to be brilliant at your job. Of course, there are some things we’ll be unable to share, but if it’s something that lets you serve our colleagues, our customers and our partners better, then you’ve every right to expect it and every right to demand it.
I will have high expectations of you.
Don’t you always I hear you say. And you’re right I do. That’s because I profoundly believe in you and I believe what we’re trying to build here.
My first expectation is that you’ll hold me to the resolutions I’ve outlined in this letter. This will not be easy — for either of us — but I expect you to do it. I’ve committed this to writing as a helpful guide for both of us.
My second is that you’ll evaluate me by what I do and not just what I say. “Talk is cheap” is a timeless missive and certainly one my children have called me on in the past. However, it will be my actions and behaviours that signal how much I’m delivering against these commitments. When my behaviours do not align to the resolutions above, call me on it. Of course, I’d expect you do it in a way that is respectful but critically I also need it to be informative. Give me solid examples and give me some recommendations on how, where and with whom I can do better.
My last expectation is you’ll take a moment to determine how you can live into your own resolutions for 2021. I hope that you’ve set some bold and audacious goals for yourself. Some of them may even include this company and your job here. Whatever your goals are, and wherever you’ve chosen to focus your talents and passions, I would ask that you seek to be a great colleague and a positive catalyst to those you work with here. We are in desperate need of your unique talents and our collective success will rely on each of us leaning in fully.
I thank you for taking time to read this note.
I also thank you for bringing your amazing talents to this organization.
In anticipation of a great 2021,
There you go. My leader’s letter for 2021.
If it can help you, or someone you believe has all the hallmarks and potential of a great leader, then we’re off to a great start already.
To paraphrase my wife’s favourite Xmas movie (and my own guilty pleasure) “Love Actually”…”If you can’t say these things at New Year, when can you say them eh?”
With love for 2021
if this post caused you a moment of reflection, might I suggest you reach a little further and grab a copy of this book from the indomitable Stan Slap. You won’t be disappointed.