Vistage East Malaysia

Vistage CEOs on 6 hard business lessons learned in 2020

Share this article

CEOs who led their companies through 2020 will look back on this time and remember their toughest moments in leadership. Businesses faced a variety of challenges — disrupted supply chains, closed sites, full remote workforces, and new online methods of communication and collaboration. The pandemic punctuated key business lessons that became even more apparent amid heightened uncertainty. Reflecting on the year, Vistage CEOs and business owners share the tough lessons that surfaced on their leadership journeys.

1. Work smarter, not harder.

Pamela DonAroma, President and CEO, Futures, Inc.
Vistage member since 2019

“The toughest lesson I learned this year was I can’t control everything by working harder, communicating more or implementing protocols and policies. Sometimes things are just out of my control. It was a time to pause and think about what my priorities are personally and for our agency. How can I keep people safe? How can I support their mental health needs? How can I keep them employed and financially stable, all while making sure we, as a business, continued to be viable? We truly came together as a team and became a stronger agency and a business. This crisis helped to realign our priorities and see how we can support each other without sacrificing our business. We became very creative.”

2. Communication is paramount.

Ritwik Bose, Sr. Director of Technical Consulting, Impiger Technologies
Vistage member since 2019

“For me, a key lesson learnt this year is that everyone in the organization (not just your leadership team but every employee) is going through a considerable amount of stress. As a leader, it is important that you help mitigate stress. The best way to deal with it is to connect, communicate and collaborate more often than before, either through tools or just a phone call. And don’t just talk business — talk about your likes, stories and dreams.”

Tanya Grams, Principal, GIS International
Vistage member since 2018

“Honestly, being a mother and a business owner has been tough this year. As business operations had some new interesting ups and downs, and our kids switched to remote learning, the juggle became very real. Communication became one of the most important lessons from 2020. It had to be optimized for employees, family members, friends and neighbors. Staying connected and in touch with people made this year bearable. Our construction sites had to move forward, and our employees had to figure out how to work remotely. We had to learn how to use Zoom, FaceTime, GoToMeeting, Teams, email and text message as a group and individually to be in-the-know of all the changes due to the pandemic.”

3. Support your fellow colleagues.

Melissa Copeland, Principal, Blue Orbit Consulting
Vistage member since 2020

“We recently talked about key learnings from 2020 in our Vistage meeting. For me, a key learning has been the value of people that listen and support — not always advising, not always correcting or trying to fix, but willing to be there and offer help where I need it and when I am in a position to receive it!”

Jeff Jahn, CEO & Chief Nerd, DynamiX
Vistage member since 2017

“My biggest 2020 takeaway is that we can do more than we think we can. As CEO of a company that serves hundreds of businesses large and small, I was amazed by how companies stepped up this year. Employees, customers and the community came together to solve challenges no one expected to be facing, and to help one another navigate the changing space. Some were forced to all but reinvent their business models virtually overnight, and have emerged in many ways stronger than they entered the year. Having an established network proved an essential component to navigating those changes, and connections made in Vistage were instrumental for many of those transformations. For my company, 2020 reaffirmed how much we have to be thankful for, and how much I appreciate our team and the amount of ownership and care that they poured into keeping our customers healthy and successful through everything that came our way.”

4. Prioritize personal and organizational well-being.

Tera McHugh, Co-Owner, Versatile Systems, Inc.
Vistage member since 2019

“The toughest lesson I learned this year is to be aware of how much I am personally taking on to ensure I don’t overwhelm myself and to ask for help when I need it before it’s too late (which sadly, I learned the hard way this year). I also need to be aware of how much those on my team are taking on to ensure they are not overloaded, especially the women. Most women seem to be people pleasers, and they will sacrifice themselves if you allow them to. When I am being a good leader I am tending to the emotional, mental and physical health of myself and my team.”

John Panigas, President,
Vistage Speaker since 2019

“I believe one of the unspoken issues all businesses will face is an increase in mental illness issues within leadership and the team. As a business community, we have failed to address this issue aggressively in the past, and as a result, the future will be challenging. It is time leadership realized depression and company environments that inadvertently foster mental illness issues must be dealt with. To further highlight the issue, 65% of Millennials and GenZ will not consider a job offer unless the organization has a mental wellness program. These two cohorts are estimated to be 75% of the workforce by 2025. The truth is there is a significant ROI for an organization to focus on the mental well-being of the team. Leadership has a lot of work to do.”

Arthur Blanchford, EVP Sales & Business Dev., Veoneer, Inc.
Vistage member since 2020

“The toughest lesson I have learned is that I am not Superman. I have gone flat out for 25 years constantly traveling internationally and feeling that I must perform at a very high level all the time to be OK as a human being, to be worthy. I never identified that before, but looking back, it is clearly what it was. I was in bed for eight weeks this spring right after Covid hit and was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Again, in hindsight, I can see the signs, but couldn’t see them then, just writing everything off to jet lag. I have learned the tough lesson that I am not my work and that my self-worth does NOT equal my work performance. That there are plenty of others around me that are just as or more capable than me to handle the issues. As I am getting healthy again, also with the help of Workaholics Anonymous, I am seeing that I can be even more effective at work with my new perspective. Instead of personally jumping into every space where there is a problem, I can help others grow into the space and allow time to solve many things on its own. In short, by setting life and health boundaries and being more selective in what I do, I am also more effective at work as well and helping others grow. Most importantly, I am having a MUCH better life with my family.”

5. Leaders won’t please everyone.

Masha Hodi, Partner & CAO, Cerity Partners
Vistage member since 2018

“You are never going to please everyone. Managing 225 employees across nine offices during a pandemic brought this lesson to life every day. We made decisions for the health and safety of our team, but those decisions were not always met with support. People struggle with change. Even when you over-communicate your rationale and your plan for action, there will always be people that don’t like the answer or have a different opinion. Leading from the heart, doing our best to ensure that every colleague could work remotely, and accommodating personal situations has worked well. You have to make decisions that are right for the business and the majority — it’s never going to be perfect for all!”

6. Have the right people on your team.

Shane Jette, CEO, Facility Improvement Corporation
Vistage member since 2020

“First, I didn’t put enough emphasis on having the right team until March when it was suddenly clear that I didn’t have the right players or that I didn’t have everyone in the right seat. Second, it’s also important to have a good sales team. We’ve been in business and have grown organically without any real sales function. I used to be kind of proud of that and now I see that I was ignorant. Ouch. I can’t even guess how much these two mistakes cost in terms of dollars, anxiety, and my family this year. We’ve worked really hard to overcome this. I’m excited for 2021!”

C-suite leaders will likely look back on 2020 as the year when grit mattered the most. The truth of the pandemic can be summed up in the words of Robert H. Schuller: “Tough times never last, but tough people do.” To enter 2021 with the diverse and creative perspectives of your CEO peers, explore the advantages of CEO peer groups to take your business and leadership to a new peak in a new year.

Scroll to Top