June 20, 2020

It’s Not The New Normal. Think Of It As The Great Reset.

During the week of April 20, I hosted 40 thinkers, authors, leaders, and keynote speakers from around the world at a virtual leadership event called “Speak Aid.” We raised $33,000 for the Red Cross. That felt good given the state of the world.

After each of the 40 talks, we would take questions from the audience. It often became a short fireside chat. One of the terms that was used several times during the discussions related to a term known as the “new normal.” It’s not surprising given everyone was looking back at their past life before the pandemic, taking stock, and summarizing that each of us is entering into a different life; the “new normal.”

There isn’t a day that continues to pass where I don’t come across the term “new normal.” Pandemic de rigueur, perhaps. I find everyone’s new favorite phrase pathetically inadequate. It’s as insufficient as a meal plan that is devoid of vegetables. It’s as silly as playing basketball without rims. It’s like FC Barcelona without Lionel Messi.

Roughly a month after the Speak Aid event finished, George Floyd was killed. His death sparked a global, catalytic outrage, a movement toward a more just and equal world. “Enough was enough,” screamed hundreds of thousands of people in protests littered across the world. Like his fellow Americans before him, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and hundreds more were victims of a racist and unjust society.

Behaving normally is typically to conform to some standard or regular pattern. To be normal is to act in accordance with a preexisting rule or principle. I’m not interested in the “new normal.” That presupposes the “old normal” was normal. None of it was normal prior to the pandemic. None of it was just when we analyze the thousands of people killed or injured by police officers.

It’s about as normal as seeing a Koala Bear roam the streets of Manhattan. That’s not normal; it’s abnormal.

Much of how we operated in society was unsatisfactory, questionable, and highly flawed. We became blind to those existing standards, rules, racial biases, and backward principles. It took a pandemic and the horrific murder of George Floyd to wake us all up from our collective coma.

If we simply use the “old normal” as a baseline to define our “new normal” while we wait patiently for a COVID-19 vaccine, we will have missed our chance to start anew. We will have squandered the opportunity to redefine how we work, how we live, how we care. I don’t want to see that happen.

The so-called “new normal” is not a moonshot; it’s the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster all over again. The next moonshot cannot be to improve upon our old normal.

History illuminates eras that forced us to employ stronger terminology that defined the times. The Great War between 1914 and 1918 was “the war to end all wars.” It ended with 22 million military personnel and civilian deaths. Millions more died due to the 1918 pandemic, a related casualty of the Great War due to proximity issues, ignorance, and a disregard for human life.

The Great Depression—kicked off by that infamous day in 1929 known as Black Tuesday—caused a huge and devastating global economic meltdown for the better part of a decade. Unemployment rates ranged between 22 percent and 33 percent in various countries. Global gross domestic product fell by 15 percent. It was a challenging time for millions of people and businesses.

Fast forward to 2007, and the Great Recession took hold on much of society. The US housing bubble, subprime mortgage fiasco, derivatives, and bailouts occupied the headlines, US GDP fell by 4.3 percent while most European countries reported recession-related numbers on multiple criteria including a substantial drop in GDP and increased levels of unemployment.

I should like to suggest further that much of Western society has partaken in a “Great Racism” of sorts lasting decades, if not a few centuries. That racism is the result of inferior policy and education, coupled with a healthy dose of human ignorance. As Ibram X. Kendi offers in his book, How to Be an Antiracist: “Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy. It’s a pretty easy mistake to make: People are in our faces. Policies are distant. We are particularly poor at seeing the policies lurking behind the struggles of people.” Thus, we need not only see the stupidity that has resulted from poor policy, but society also requires a major policy overhaul to ameliorate the struggles once and for all.

The Great War, Great Depression, Great Recession were calamitous historical events. The “Great Racism” epoch continues. Millions died. Billions of dollars were lost. Lives have been uprooted, stunted, or disregarded. It’s a great travesty.

It’s the word “great” that we need to steal back and put into a positive light for 2020 and beyond.

Instead of the overused and tragically inadequate “new normal” phraseology, I adamantly advocate that we enter into a period known as the Great Reset. Let us not allow ourselves even for a nanosecond to believe everything was “normal” on March 11, 2020, when coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It wasn’t. And it certainly wasn’t normal when George Floyd lost his life on May 25, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, nor for decades prior through thousands of race-related deaths.

With a lens focused squarely on our organizations, the Great Reset requires us to rethink four key areas:

  • The Point of Work
  • How We Lead
  • The Manner of Work
  • Workplace EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion)

The Point of Work

A divisive rule of inequality marked the Gilded Age. Since 1970—and at the misguided declaration of Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman—the sole responsibility of business was for shareholder interests to be assigned first priority relative to all other corporate stakeholders. Truth be told, shareholder primacy theory, as it is known, has resurrected the Gilded Age. I was born in 1971 and have thus lived my entire life with this theory as the doctrine of business. In hindsight, we have become a world of haves and have-nots, polarized by those with money and those without. And the haves seem to have acquired both halves of the wealth coin.

Is growth the sole reason we work? Are our jobs cast to dominate over others, crush competitors, and extract rent until there is no more to extract? Maybe as part of the Great Reset, we become accountable to one another, entering into a relationship of reciprocity rather than supremacy. Perhaps there is more to life than winning at all costs, power, greed, and extracting all-natural resources to lay our Earth barren for future generations.

Should we continue to work by exclusively focusing on increasing profits through the economic policies of shareholder capitalism? Do we solely serve the stock market, or should it serve society? It is indeed time to invoke a balanced operating model. We need businesses to act at all times with a higher sense of purpose while simultaneously aiming for a profit. Let’s be clear; if there is no profit, there is no business. But businesses need not forget that society is an ecosystem. Indeed we are all in this together, a melting pot of stakeholders.

Shareholders, on the other hand, shall be rewarded if and only if a company adequately serves its primary stakeholders who make up its ecosystem. In short and in no uncertain terms, a new rule of business known as stakeholder capitalism must become the new why of work. The purpose must become to serve all stakeholders, including customers, employees, partners, suppliers, the communities in which we live, and the planet. From there, shareholders are rewarded if the company is “doing good.”

For several decades, the top 1% of earners gained $21 trillion in wealth. The bottom 50 percent? Their earnings totaled a measly $900 billion in wealth. It’s directly related to shareholder capitalism, defined merely as “an economic system in which the dominant corporate form is legally independent companies that can pool capital from many shareholders with limited liability, complemented by an open stock market to trade these shares freely.” Put differently; shareholder capitalism ensures the rich get richer while the working class is exploited for their labor. It also produces c-suite and board myopia, where the dominant interest is centered on raising the stock price versus legitimately operating with a conscience (or higher purpose) in all of its business dealings.

I argue that the purpose of an organization ought to be to provide service to benefit all intended stakeholders by a model called “Good DEEDS.” It’s a model I first put forward in my 2016 book, The Purpose Effect. The Good DEEDS of any organization can be enacted as follows:

  • Delight your customers. An organization ought to commit to working with and for the customer—continuously dedicated to delighting them while improving value—always remembering why an organization exists in the first place. Do whatever it takes to ensure you are increasing the value of what you do for your customer. Do not take them for granted.
  • Engage your team members. To improve value and service for your customers, your team members must feel as though there is purpose in their work—that they are engaged and flourishing in their role as part of your organization—while possessing the opportunity to imagine, incubate, initiate, innovate, interact and influence. Create a culture in which employees feel safe to opine, are empowered to make decisions, and are valued in all their actions.
  • Ethical within society. Ethics is an organization’s integrity. It is the bridge of trust between customer and team member. As you look out for the interests of all stakeholders in society, set targets through financially, environmen­tally, socially, and educationally improved means. When you are transparent and honest with what you are trying to achieve, you act with ethics. It’s what society deserves; your firm’s ethics.
  • Deliver fair practices. Significantly improved people practices reflect an organization’s results. If team members can work in an environment devoid of the existing and systemic operational inanities that are prevalent in today’s organization, it will deliver both fairer and markedly improved business results in a new purpose-first organizational mindset.
  • Serve all stakeholders. Recognizing that no organization is an island unto itself, organizations must operate going forward with relevancy focused toward all relevant stakeholders. Realizing its responsibil­ity as an integral partner in society’s ecosystem that affects customers, employees, partners, suppliers, the communities in which we live, the planet and shareholders alike, organizations no longer operate solely for purpose or shareholder return, rather the goal of assisting all stakeholders.

The Great Reset demands we redefine the why of work. It can happen if organizations focus on carrying out “Good DEEDS” in all their activities—operating at all times with a resolute sense of purpose—focusing on the necessity to serve all stakeholders and not solely those seeking financial returns.

How We Lead

When we begin to work for all stakeholders—a shift in the purpose and meaning of work—we must also shift how we serve those stakeholders. It starts with how we define leadership. If we do not change how we lead self and others, those stakeholders will never be served wholly. So how? In a word, care. Leaders need to care more.

As America’s first self-made millionaire, Sarah Breedlove—known as Madame C. J. Walker—was an African-American entrepreneur in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She pioneered the development and marketing of hair care products and cosmetics. As a successful entrepreneur, Breedlove could have overlooked the needs of her employees. Instead, she respected their thoughts and hunger for growth.

Her business employed well over three thousand workers in the US, and a large portion of those were door-to-door saleswomen. She was known to be overly generous, getting to know many of her employees through the in-depth training sessions she delivered. In 1912, Breedlove said, “Now my object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in an automobile, but I love to use a part of what I make to help others.” Breedlove was a leader who respected the needs of those who worked for her. In sum, she cared.

To become a caring leader, I have discovered over my 25+ years of leading large-scale organizational change while simultaneously studying and interviewing leaders from across the globe that there are nine key lessons.

Lead. Care. Win. by Dan Pontefract
Lead. Care. Win. by Dan Pontefract

Lesson 1 – Be RelatableLesson 2 – Play for MeaningLesson 3 – Stay PresentLesson 4 – Remain CuriousLesson 5 – Embrace ChangeLesson 6 – Dare to ShareLesson 7 – Command ClarityLesson 8 – Commit to BalanceLesson 9 – Champion Others

There is very detailed guidance in my next book, LEAD. CARE. WIN., (yes, you can pre-order) on how to become a more caring leader, however, I have included key highlights of each lesson for you to consider as it pertains to the Great Reset:

Be Relatable

A relatable leader is more personal in their interactions with others, demonstrating realness and a real sense of openness. They show their underbelly. Furthermore, they respect everyone they work with, are polite in all their dealings, and they employ a high dose of empathy. They take the time to appreciate the opinions, feelings, and intellectual points of view of others.

Play for Meaning

Leaders recognize that there is more to leadership than merely climbing a career ladder. They look out for others when things go sideways. Ultimately, these types of leaders stop solely playing for the name on the back of their jersey. They play for the crest on the front, serving all stakeholders. (See The Point of Work from above as well, for further details.)

Stay Present

When leaders realize there is no such thing as “time management,” it’s a step in the right direction. Leaders must recognize that they must change their use of “time behavior.” When that occurs, only then will they become present, mindful, and focused on those they are leading. (Time management is a trap, and it leads to uncaring leaders.)

Remain Curious

Leaders who ensure learning is a continuous workplace trait for all employees—pushing team members to remain curious and never settling on their current level of competence—wind up being caring leadership winners in the eyes of those employees.

Embrace Change

Caring leaders pluck the lessons of history because tomorrow never knows when those learnings will influence a new project or decision. They know mistakes are bound to happen. They learn from the mistakes while asking team members for assistance along the path of change itself.

Dare to Share

Drop the pretense: caring leaders find ways to publish publicly or make accessible your non-confidential files, data, etc. for team members to benefit from. They offer up their expertise to colleagues in the organization. They’re a mentor, coach, or at least someone who shares their knowledge freely.

Command Clarity

Commanding clarity is not about being hierarchical or a jerk boss; it’s being clear about where you and the team are heading. Caring leadings are unafraid to block out time in their calendar to become more strategic with their thinking and to make better decisions. They command the same clarity of their team members to ensure everyone is confident on the way forward.

Commit to Balance

Ask yourself if you are a leader who prefers to sit in an office behind email and meetings? Do you forgo dealing with a lack of an EDI strategy? That is an imbalanced leader. Caring leaders create the conditions where they commit to balance across all facets of the team’s operations. (See Workplace EDI below for some more ideas.)

Champion Others

Ego-less camaraderie, and high-performing, engaged and trusting teams are the result of a caring leader who consistently champions others. They are willing to go above the call of duty. They create respectful workplaces, full of fairly paid people, eager to share, and help one another. Their self-worth is high, in part, because they act with humility, also consciously choosing to send the elevator back down.

The Manner of Work

Despite the incessant C-Suite fear that productivity losses would materialize while employees did their laundry instead of working from home, the pandemic has proven that the vast majority of office jobs can be performed remotely. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, for example, emailed employees informing them that for any role that can do so, they will be permitted to choose whether to continue working from home permanently (or not) even after the pandemic passes.

Over at Columbus-based Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, CEO Kirt Walker plans to decrease the number of physical offices from 20 before the pandemic to just four. Walker recognized there was no decrease in productivity during the pandemic. High tech firm OpenText, based in Waterloo, Ont., announced plans to shutter 50 percent of its global office locations, leaving 20 percent of its workforce without permanent office space.

I canvassed for opinions on LinkedIn. One struck me in particular:

Our team used to work four days in the office, one day at home (we each had a different day at home). In the Great Reset, we’re looking to work one day in the office (the same day), and four days at home. We’ve been wildly productive at home. And now that practically all of our training has been flipped to virtual training, might as well keep it that way! 🙂

Organizations ought to be considering their post-COVID-19 workplace space options and operational processes now. It can’t solely be about saving money on real estate, as many CFOs seem to be salivating over.

While some face-to-face interaction is essential—be it to develop relationships, augment experience, deliver training, recognize team members or provide a nurturing ear—there is no reason whatsoever to mandate employees into a building for 40 hours a week just because that’s how it’s always been done.

The “new normal” suggests we tweak our office environments such that we’re two meters apart yet remain collaborative. The “new normal” wants us to queue up for the elevator. The “new normal” is merely putting lipstick on the pig known as the corporate office. We require a Great Reset of where and when we work.

First, we need to reset where we work. I recommend contemplating truly different approaches, such as:

  • Consider subletting, selling, or letting go of 50 percent of your current space or real estate allocation. It’s a potential waste, and you likely will not need it in the Great Reset.
  • Do away with all solo offices in what space remains. Build out hoteling offices and desks, meeting rooms, collaborative spaces, and 1-1 meeting places that are booked by employees for any occasion to meet face-to-face or to be in the office. This can include customer and partner meetings. No one person owns/uses the same space twice in a row. No one person or leader has their own office anymore. Ensure there are storage areas where employees can stow personal items such as workout clothes, coffee mugs, etc. Make the office a collaborative hive, a touch-down haven of as-you-need-it interactions.
  • Offer employees a fully paid relocation package to move to a rural city or town with the myriad benefits that accrue the employee and the local destination. Fly them into headquarters two to four times a year to reacquaint with colleagues and participate in face-to-face training. Coordinate it such that new employees are present so new relationships can form. Have some fun!

Second, we need to reset when we work. The following are potential considerations:

  • Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand estate planning services firm with 250 employees, began experimenting with the 4-day workweek in 2018. They’ve since adopted it as an organizational norm due to its raving success, increased productivity, and customer satisfaction.
  • Microsoft Japan conducted a 4-day workweek pilot in 2019 with 2300 employees. They shockingly yet positively discovered that overall employee productivity increased by 40 percent. Said Microsoft Japan president and CEO Takuya Hirano: “Work a short time, rest well and learn a lot. It’s necessary to have an environment that allows you to feel your purpose in life and make a greater impact at work. I want employees to think about and experience how they can achieve the same results, with 20 percent less working time.”
  • It’s time not only to consider the 4-day workweek but to ask ourselves if the 8-hour consecutive workday is necessary for the Great Reset. Take, for instance, a call center. What if the call center agents a) were able to work from home, and b) could sign up for shifts that were in 2-hour increments? They might be able to scatter four 2-hour shifts over 16 hours, allowing themselves a greater balance of work, life, and play. It might even go a long way toward retention issues that are prevalent within the call center industry as well.
  • If the 4-day workweek is improbable, then perhaps the 6-hour workday might be another consideration for full-time workers. Is 8 am-5 pm or thereabouts a genuinely healthy model? Does it bring out the best in employees? When an organization conducts an enterprise-wide time and meeting audit—ascertaining how the organization spends its time—I reckon there is at least 20 percent of the time that is useless and wasted. Once the uselessness is trimmed, a 6-hour workday seems plausible, and the effect is a healthier, less-stressed, more engaged employee.

Workplace EDI

Equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) are in desperate need of shifting from being bullets in an annual report to a living, breathing command center of action. While some progress has been made in our organizations over recent years, the Great Reset requires a far more aggressive approach going forward.

First, let’s be honest. Inequity runs rampant in our organizations. Not only are there gaping voids of women, people of color, and other minorities in leadership roles and board appointments, there is blatant pay imbalance and discrimination. There remains a gender wage gap of 18 percent in the US. According to BLS data, the median White worker in the US made 28 percent more in wages than the typical Black worker and more than 35 more than the median Latino worker.

Persons with disabilities continue to fight against physical impediments that make it more challenging to perform their roles, whether it’s parking spaces, elevators, or hallway space. That’s if they have been hired in the first place. Evidence suggests persons with disabilities do not experience the same access to work opportunities as do their counterparts without disabilities.

How about the 2SLGBTQIA+ community and its long-suffering pain in the workplace? Are these people not human? Do they not deserve the same treatment as anyone not identifying themselves as 2SLGBTQIA+?

Mental health and wellness ought to be considered a key component of EDI, too. After all, so many employees see their mental health negatively affected due to the blatant disregard of their needs, be it identity, pay, promotion, and so on. When we treat everyone as human—equal in our humanity—perhaps levels of stress might indeed decrease in the workplace.

EDI is no longer a business case; it’s one of the reasons to be in business. If your organization does not possess a Chief EDI Officer, why not? If that role does not report to the CEO, why not? If your organization has not set targets for non-White males in leadership and board roles, why not?

Only when EDI becomes more than bullets in an annual report and an enforceable action plan will we see Great Reset-type change in the organization. At a minimum, we owe it to George Floyd and the thousands of people who stood for a more just society to make a change in our workplaces.

In Summary

In the words of Martin Luther King, “Every society has its protectors of status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant, and to face the challenge of change.”

We do not need to uphold the status quo. The new normal must be overlooked.

It is time for the Great Reset.

Are you willing to reset?


(Originally published on Forbes)

PS. My next book, LEAD. CARE. WIN. How to Become a Leader Who Matters is now available for pre-order. Click here. Publishing September 29.

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