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  • Sean Ryan

How to Embrace the ‘Next Normal’

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

How to Embrace the ‘Next Normal’


It’s been nearly a year-and-a-half since what might be called the old normal and many of us have spent much of it scrambling and struggling. As vaccination rates rise, restrictions ease, and all aspects of life and work start to open up again, the end of pandemic survival mode is in sight. our collective cortisol levels recede, and we can start to settle down after the incredible turbulence of the pandemic, it’s time to take stock. For me, as for many of you, September, not January, has always felt like the actual new year. So, this fall, if you’re one of the lucky ones whose business has survived (or thrived), you can begin to think seriously about what comes next.

Post-pandemic, it’s essential to be intentional about this “next normal.”

I’ve always contended there’s no “new normal,” that change is a constant in life and business. That’s why, 20 years ago, I named my consulting company WhiteWater because of the perpetual movement and churn in our world.

And yet, even I can admit that the level of disruption caused by the pandemic is singular. It’s the Niagara Falls of change. And that requires a fresh lens and some extra effort at the leadership level to set a course for your team as we head into new, hopefully calmer, waters.

There’s No Going Back

One thing is clear: the state of the world and your business in March 2020 is history.

From the acceleration of digital transformation to the emergence of nearly universal remote work to shifting consumer expectations and new regulations, things have changed. You need to revisit your strategy, refocus on what's critical to the success of your business and rethink how you create unique value for your customers.

How will you position yourself in the marketplace? How has your competitive advantage evolved or eroded? What new expectations do your customers have? What new opportunities exist?

The best place to start is talking to your customers to understand what choice factors matter most to them now. Of course, market research and customer communication is always important, but it’s one of those functions that often falls by the wayside. The next normal presents an opportunity to get back to basics. Don’t skip this foundational step in informing your strategy framework.

Not only will these conversations help you see where you shine and where your competitors have you beat, but you may discover new unmet needs and emerging opportunities.

Putting It Into Action

Now that you’ve got a handle on where your customers and industry are at, it’s time to consider how you’ll execute on that strategy and position yourself in the marketplace.

What new scorecards or performance indicators will you need to tell you you’re on track? What top actions will be essential to get there? How might you need to pivot or shift? How do you communicate now?

Don’t assume that what worked in 2020 will still apply. The greatest leaders I’ve worked with in 20 years of consulting are those who are willing to challenge their assumptions and question their beliefs. Be open.

Of course, as your goals shift and strategy evolves, the people in your organization will likely need to change, too. What new skills, tasks or performance drivers will advance your strategy? How do you cascade the big plan down to your team? And how do you make sure they have the capabilities to be successful in this new environment, especially after the exhausting, distracting, sometimes devastating class-5 rapids of the last 18 months?

Prioritize Your People

If you feel like your team has gotten away from you a bit over this wild ride, that’s OK. You are far from alone. The literal distance of remote work and the drift from focused strategy execution to survival mode have pulled us all away.

The first step to getting the band back together is simple but essential: you have to spend some time connecting with your people.

While many things have changed, the principles of engagement, of building trust and creating an environment where people can be successful, have not changed at all. In fact, they’re more important than ever as you must rally them around a refreshed vision and inspire them to contribute to it.

Make time for one-on-ones. Reach out to everyone for a catch-up. Many people have experienced great pain and loss this year, both personally and professionally. We know anecdotally and from the headlines that people are feeling burnt out after a year of survival mode. After months of remote or hybrid work and all of the stress of the great COVID balancing act, empathy is essential.

Lead by listening.

Not sure where to start? Ask them things like:

  • What are you looking forward to?

  • What are you afraid of?

  • What gets you excited about coming to work every day?

  • What’s changed for you?

  • What do you need from me?

These conversations are just the beginning, but they set the tone for a productive path forward, and leading your team through new terrain into the next normal. One of the most significant changes this year was the shift to remote work, and an ongoing hybrid work model for many organizations and that’s going to pose some challenges for team cohesion moving forward (I’ll dig into that in a future post).

But for now, whatever your model, refocusing and re-engaging is the first step.


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