Two weeks into the new year, I am sure that most of us had the chance to look back at 2020 and sum up its learnings. For many people 2020 has been a massive wake-up call. Perhaps we discovered vulnerabilities in our business models – or in our relationships. Perhaps we realized that, if we want to move forward, we really need to learn new skills and competencies. Perhaps we discovered how truly addicted we are to dopamine-triggering distractions and that we miss them dearly, even though they really don’t bring much added-value to our lives.
Or perhaps we discovered new strengths and competencies we didn’t even know we had. Kudos to all the parents out there who became teachers overnight and found a way to juggle remote work, full-time home schooling, family and relationship maintenance. Maybe we’ve learned that we can do more with less, that we need less of everything and be so much happier. Maybe we also started to notice the real value of emotional presence, gratitude, kindness and positive attitude.
Regardless of where we come from, 2020 opened our eyes on aspects that we might have continued to sweep under the rug otherwise in the pre-Covid normalized rush we called life. For me it was very much like that – until March 2020, that is.
A BRUSQUE WAKE-UP CALL
2020 started on a delightful note. Five days after I landed from a monthly rejuvenation stay in Sri Lanka I flew with one of my major corporate clients to Sweden for a leadership development retreat. From there I took a few days to discover the beauties of Copenhagen. Three weeks later I flew to Cairo for the International Enneagram Association’s first conference in Egypt. If all had gone according to the plan, I was supposed to visit 17 countries for leisure or work last year.
Bu then people make plans and Gods laugh. Between March 8 and 13, when the first lockdown was imposed on the Czech Republic, ALL my contracted business deals for the rest of the year got cancelled or postponed. Ten years in the business and this kind of shock can still feel like a massive earthquake shaking all foundations you believed stable and true.
Fortunately, I always have been loved by Gods. On the one hand, in 2016-2017 I had worked for a global client managing integrated communications for a division with people on three continents. It was then that I got introduced to the value of remote communications. In 2018 I conducted the first Remote Leadership workshop and consulted with a global client during the roll out of a whole-company remote leadership development program. A year later I joined the board of the International Systemic Constellations Association (ISCA), which had been using Zoom for global member calls for several years. Thus, I got familiar with Zoom and its wonderful community building opportunities. So, when the pandemic hit, I guess I was, in a way, relatively prepared.
Following the onslaught of deal cancellations, I decided to open three virtual workshops on Zoom on March 11th on how to turn crisis into an opportunity. A major corporate client liked my work and booked 29 virtual workshops for their people working from home for the first time. We started the program on March 16th. To its honor, this corporate client also decided to support its business ecosystem and pay all their supplier invoices within 24h for a limited period of time, which saved my cash flow. Afterwards, more clients followed. When I drew the line at the end of November, I realized that in 2020 I managed to survive, acquire new clients and earn a total of 300 EUR more than I made in 2019. Given the last year’s circumstances and the heartbreaking job and revenue losses all around us, I consider this a small miracle.
The fast transformation of my client portfolio also made me realize four core vulnerabilities.
- MY DEPENDENCY ON TOO FEW INDUSTRIES. At the beginning of 2020, most of my clients came from three industries: banking, retail and FMCG. For a former financial journalist this spread would be somehow understandable. However, it didn’t make less painful the realization that I really need to add more customers from IT, e-commerce and healthcare / pharma to my portfolio.
- WAY TOO LARGE DEPENDENCY ON THE CZECH MARKET. The second dependency I realized was to my domestic Czech market. Even though I am Romanian and Czech is my fourth language, since 2010 I did everything I could to adapt and serve my domestic clientele according to their needs. Heck, I wrote my first book You, the Brand – Personal Branding for Career Growth in Czech. However, in times of crisis the Czech market is known to contract. People and organizations prefer to save money (Czechs are one of the greatest savers in the European Union) and to leave their development and growth for better days. My nature is different – in times of crisis I expand. I go out looking for opportunities, new ideas and possibilities. Our different approach made things economically and emotionally difficult for me last year.
- MASSIVE DEPENDENCY ON IN-PERSON WORK. This vulnerability goes hand in hand with being too dependent on the Czech market. When people are in the same rather small city or when you can cross the country in 4 hours, everyone expects you to come and deliver services in person. Don’t get me wrong - I love my clients and work in person does uplift my spirit. However, I can no longer ignore that, for a solo professional, you can never leverage and scale in-person work. This is why for me Covid had been, in fact, a blessing in disguise. With more people and organizations embracing remote work, from virtual meetings to virtual coaching & mentoring and virtual people development, in 2020 I could breathe for the first time in 10 years in business because I could finally see the opportunity to scale – not to speak about the luxury of being able to work from anywhere, really.
- MASSIVE DEPENDENCY ON OPERATIONAL PEOPLE. The fourth and perhaps my most painful realization was that I was too dependent on operational people – HR and PR. This is also understandable. In 2010 I started my business by providing companies with media training and crisis communications. Thus, my key stakeholders were the heads of communication departments in organizations. As my portfolio grew, I stretched towards HR, who were able to show me how to address their companies’ complex people development needs. However, in 2020 both categories of my “best friends” went under the water. Communication specialists were drowning in requirements to handle internal and external crisis communications with reduced budgets, while HR specialists moved their focus from people development to people safety, which was understandable under the circumstances. However, with both my strategic partners drowning under the weight of operational management, I could not unsee how vulnerable I had become because I had simply forgotten to build stronger relationships with those who, in crisis, are in charge: the CEOs.
What do you do when you realize that you are vulnerable? You fix that. So here is a list of my 10 Commands for 2021. I intend to apply and hold on to them so I can continue walking on my mission to develop the marvelous human potential, thrive and enjoy the process.
- 2021 KEYWORDS: DIGNITY, DISCIPLINE, TRUST AND SERVICE. People who work with me know my core values: Integrity, Freedom, Partnership and Service. Yet this year I feel te need to add a few more words to my key list: Dignity, Discipline and Trust. Dignity is about an attitude of self-respect and courage of standing up for one’s self. As for discipline, I am absolutely convinced that it is the key to focus and deep value creation, while trust is what makes and keeps our relationships alive regardless of the outer circumstances.
- ENGLISH FIRST. This is the first of a few major shifts that my business will be making this year. With the exception of my early start in business, my primary language has been Czech. Yet, in 2020 I experienced moments when I needed to send new regional and global clients offers, referrals or proof-of-work and I didn’t have them in English. This stunted my business potential in a moment when I needed new customers the most. By moving (back) to English first I make sure that all my clients can meet on a common ground and that I can build truly thriving and diverse communities. At the same time, I will continue to provide language-localized services (in Czech, Romanian and French) by adapting them to individual customer needs for an extra cost.
- 80%-20%. This is another major shift in my business. In 2021 and in the future I will strive for 80% of my work to be done remotely, regardless of the location of my clients. This includes most client meetings, all coaching & mentoring sessions and most virtual training sessions. The remaining 20% of in-person work will be dedicated exclusively to services related to people development where physical presence is the added-value creator, like for example leadership, emotional and systemic intelligence development and they will be provided as a premium, to honor the time, travel and presence investment required by in-person service delivery.
- NO MORE ONE-OFF TRAINING DAYS. This is one of my boldest moves this year. It broke my heart to read in a recent report by McKinsey that only one-third of leaders say their capability-building programs achieve business impact. That can be true – when we engage in a one-off training day, we can tick the activity off the development list, but there is little that we can do to guarantee that people will remain in a developmental mood once the training is over. This is why last year I transformed all my one-day training sessions into a U-shaped people development program made of three four-hour modules. Instead of a one-off 8h training day my clients now receive 12h of training and A LOT of homework in between. I make sure the project includes sufficient time – and budget - to assess people’s needs and competency levels at the beginning, during and at the end of each program, thus proving black-on-white how people advance and how to continue to grow after our work together. More, my experience shows that 3 to 4-hour virtual workshops are also more sustainable, as people can focus and still use half of their day for operational activities.
- NO MORE TENDERS. All my individual, group and team development work is premium and tailor-made. Even so, in the past I used to join corporate tenders for people development projects. Not anymore. In the future I am happy to invite my clients to become familiar with my work, then we can move together into a space of co-creation. For that I am willing to go the distance, to communicate more and to offer a rich palette of complimentary experiences. At the same time, this is the only way how I can guarantee that all my work is top-of-the-shelf, impactful and perfectly calibrated to the client’s needs.
- DEEP WORK FIRST. This item is a bit connected with my key word discipline. Most of my work involves coaching, mentoring and training. This requires my full mental and emotional presence. This is why I need to be less present personally on various digital communication channels, so I can be even more present for client interactions. It means that I will need to delegate more and you will probably start hearing more from my team members. And that’s ok – as long as we all carry the same spirit and serve the same purpose of top-quality communications and client service delivery.
- DEEP CONVERSATIONS. Last year was no different – people kept calling and asking to take a coffee together. Well, let’s make it different ? In 2020 I exchanged coffee shops for long walks with clients and friends in parks or in the forest, with my dog as a loyal companion. Scooby was happy, we got our portion of movement and we were able to enjoy hours of intimate chat in fresh air. I feel that this move deepened my relationships, so I intend to continue doing it in the future as well.
- CEOs FIRST. As I noted above when speaking about vulnerabilities, CEOs – from corporate leaders to company founders and entrepreneurs – have been painfully missing from my client portfolio. Not anymore. While honoring the firm pillars of PR and HR, upon which my business has been built, I feel the need to close the “Holy Triangle” and add more executives to the portfolio of people whom I serve. I also expect many of them to be women, given my track record of female leadership development programs conducted in the past.
- DISRUPTORS FIRST. Speaking of diversity, I can no longer ignore my first vulnerability – a limited industry portfolio. This is why I will pay more attention to customers from the IT, e-commerce, fintech and healthcare / pharma industries. This is where disruption is coming from, this is where we can expect massive growth in the future and this is where I want to put my skills and energy to the service of those who can drive positive change in our society.
- COURAGEOUSLY WALKING MY PATH IN MY ENTIRE WHOLENESS. LIFE AWAITS. This last commandment is actually a quote that came to me during an exercise at the end of the Systemic Leadership course held by the Whole Partnership Institute that I graduated this January. Sometimes, in order to overcome a massive shake-up, we need to become the shake-up. To overcome a wave, we need to become the wave. And sometimes we need to be aware that we are so much more than that what we got used to and that a whole world is out there, waiting for us to realize that we are only a step away from living our full human potential.