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Leading Off
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What does a leader’s year-end outlook look like when the year feels never-ending? The calendar will turn, of course, but after nearly two years, the pandemic’s uncanny ability to blur time makes the approaching new year feel a lot like another go-round of 2021. Boredom and depression continue to cast a slow-motion haze over day-to-day life. Weddings and other life events that anchor our calendars remain hostage to a fight against COVID-19 and its variants that moves in an excruciatingly slow ebb and flow. At work, the question of what is a home and what is an office and what happens when the twain meet reassures neither bosses nor workers. To this great recirculation add the great attrition, yet another challenge that tests a leader’s mettle. Against this backdrop we humbly step back from making bold prognostications. Instead, let’s close out 2021 by examining some enduring challenges and opportunities that demand your focus, in good times or bad, as the world heads into the pandemic’s third year.
person with mobile phone
Tele-everything is here to stay
This year the Pew Research Center asked innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists to consider what life will be like in 2025 in the wake of the pandemic and other crises. The broad—and nearly universal—view from more than 915 respondents may not seem all that surprising: people’s relationship with technology will deepen as “larger segments of the population come to rely more on digital connections for work, education, healthcare, daily commercial transactions, and essential social interactions.” But the ramifications of this trend shouldn’t escape leaders’ attention: income inequality is likely to worsen, big tech may gain more power, and misinformation about hot-button subjects will likely continue to spread. On the positive side of the ledger, the seeds of reforms aimed at social justice will continue to sprout and grow, work arrangements will become ever more flexible, and tech advances will allow people to live smarter, safer, and more productive lives.
Just under one-half of the supply-chain companies in a recent survey said they understand the location risks and other key risks faced by their tier-one suppliers. Expand the question to include third-tier suppliers and beyond, where many of today’s pressing supply shortages of goods such as semiconductors occur, and the number plummets to 2 percent. During the pandemic, supply-chain discussions have migrated from warehouse operators’ spreadsheets to the family dinner table, affecting the buying decisions of hundreds of millions of consumers. The bad news: supply-chain operators are a long way from fixing their problems. Stymied at their efforts to detach themselves from locked-in supply relationships built up in the heyday of just-in-time delivery, they now struggle to strike new regional and nearshoring supply relationships. The outlook: shortages won’t disappear soon, and as inventories build, costs and vulnerabilities will continue to rise.
“We’ve spotted a trend that I think will stay—learning to really like your surroundings and do shorter trips that are closer to home.”
So says Axel Hefer, CEO of Trivago, the global search platform focused on comparing hotels and alternative accommodations. Spending on tourism isn’t likely to return to precrisis levels until 2024, but the desire to travel is certainly there—it was the second-most-desired activity cited by respondents to a recent survey, behind dining out. But the longer the trip, the more uncertain travelers are likely to be about taking it, especially with COVID-19 variants and renewed travel restrictions in some areas. In this interview, Hefer points to travel-industry innovations such as emphasizing safety and value in trip planning, as well as helping travelers ferret out lesser-known destinations within a three- to four-hour drive from their home.
Paul Polman
Paul Polman doesn’t pull any punches when he describes what he’s up to now. “What we’re trying to do,” the former Unilever chairman says in describing his new book, Net Positive, “is create a movement [where] business can be successful by not creating the world’s problems but by solving the world’s problems.” The higher awareness that COVID-19 has sparked about individual health, sustainability, inequality, and social justice has opened the door for those leaders who can juggle the demands of sustainable, inclusive growth. But Polman warns that the “CEOs of this world are being held to significantly higher standards than they can deliver on.” In his vision, leaders move their companies beyond paeans to social responsibility and get to the hard work of hammering out a blueprint for transformation that leads to better corporate behavior through close collaboration with civil society.
Leading Off will take a year-end break and be back January 10. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.
Lead well.
— Edited by Bill Javetski, an executive editor in McKinsey’s New Jersey office
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