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Unprecedented doesn't mean impossible

November 20, 2020
clock 5 MIN READ

We live in “unprecedented times.” I hear this often. How about you? 

Do you believe it? I do. 

There is no doubt “unprecedented” is a top finalist in the 2020 “Word of the Year” contest. But when we stop to think about what the word really means, it’s hard to find a better way to describe this year. A quick google search defines unprecedented as “never done or known before.” I don’t know about you, but that is how I would sum up the major events of a global pandemic and 2020 in general. What is interesting to me is that “unprecedented” in no way signifies “impossible” — and that may be the greatest lesson we take from this year.

Proving the impossible possible

I recently read a McKinsey report that really got me thinking about all of this. In October, the consulting firm published a study that explored the pace of technological change in a Covid-19 world. The study found that technological acceleration this year has been staggering, dramatic, and yes, truly unprecedented. In every industry, what we all believed would take years to change, took literally days. It shows how companies were able to change business model delivery, operations and customer interactions 20, 30 and even 40 times faster than they had assumed pre-pandemic. 

On one level, this faster pace is exciting! But on another level, it’s embarrassing. It’s hard not to reflect now and feel as though these changes at such a quicker rate were always possible. Why didn’t we achieve it before? Did we fall victim to deflection, excuses, and fear? As leaders, did we stop paying attention or stop listening? Did we stop building a persuasive business case for change or stop pushing for what we believed in? Perhaps we succumbed to the pressure of “it’s good enough because we have always done it this way,” or the comfort of sticking with what we know. Maybe, just maybe, we actually stopped leading. I’m not accusing us as leaders, but I am asking us to take an honest look at how we could have been so wrong. This resistance to change clearly slowed or muted our innovation and progress and, ultimately, made us less resilient. 

Not all hope is lost

Leaders have no fear! There is an opportunity right in front of us if we are brave enough and open-minded enough to take it. And why wouldn’t we be — our eyes have just been opened, have they not?

Thinking less about what caused the unprecedented times and focusing on the change itself is refreshing to me. It has me focused on what is possible. The pandemic pushed us. It forced us. As a leader how do I continue to embrace the willingness to change without the pressure of a pandemic?

It may be time for new glasses

Perhaps you need to change the lens through which you see the world because if it is truly an “unprecedented time,” then old ways won’t work. You need to look at things — the world — through new glasses. Some great and progressive changes have already occurred, such as digital marketing and selling, less business travel and remote learning. I hope we can return to a blended version of these things in the future, but clearly new approaches are underway and here to stay. 

As leaders, we talk about growth, innovation and progress, but historically we have been slow to adopt and resistant to real change, and that has come at the expense of true progress. We need to challenge the status quo and reimagine the entire value chain.

  • Reimagine what you sell and how you market. Consider how you distribute and install it, how you service it and how you contract for it.
  • Reimagine work. Examine where work gets done and who does it. How you might personalize benefits depending on employee preferences?
  • Reimagine training and education. Forget the college degree and focus more on experiences or “stackable credentials.” Partner with educational institutions like community colleges to build company-specific apprenticeships.

Basically, challenge everything. We cannot allow ourselves to go back to where we were. We must openly engage in dialogue with our teams. Free them to think about what could be — and should be. Ban the “yes, but” mentality once and for all. We have to give our teams the space and safety to challenge policy and procedure, and to challenge us as leaders. Collectively we need to constantly shape a better tomorrow. To really think about “better” and what that looks like. We must not settle for long, drawn-out change programs that often die on a vine in a lengthy process. Instead we have to promote change on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. 

I am not suggesting being careless with change. I am actually saying be more deliberate. Set deadlines according to need, not fear. Let’s not wait for the next pandemic to change again. Let’s make change a way of being, rather than a program. Let’s build change into a habit, into a fabric of our culture. Let’s stop protecting bureaucracy and starting energizing people to build better tomorrows. We are leaders and our entire job should be about change and progress. 

Go ahead, put the new glasses on. What do you see?

The Front and Centered team will be taking a short break for the Thanksgiving holiday next week – an event that probably also looks a little different for many of us this year. Whatever you do, I hope you are open to finding new ways to safely enjoy the day with your loved ones. I wish all of you in the United States a Happy Thanksgiving and a great start to the holiday season.

Albert Chiaradonna

Executive Vice President, SEI Global Private Banking

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