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2021: Turning the Page on a Year that Shocked and Saddened and reluctantly offered 20/20 Wisdom

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I look back on 2020 in disbelief over how quickly the global pandemic changed our world and lives. On February 2nd my husband and I hosted a dinner party in Park City, Utah. It was the night of the Super Bowl, and the Sundance Film Festival in Park City was just concluding—one final 10 pm movie, and it was a wrap. As we sat around the dinner table, our guests talked about plans for 2020—the beginning of a new decade, trips to be taken, friends to see, family time to savor. I had planned a quick trip to Hong Kong (ever mindful of my frequent flier status), and ushering a group of friends to Keukenhof Gardens in The Netherlands for the April tulip festival. My business partner of 27 years and I had plans as well for The Alexander Group. 2019 was the best year in our firm’s 36-year history. In 2020 we had planned to recruit additional partners as I moved to a less-active management role.

On February 2 life was filled with social gatherings and plans for 2020.

By March 9th, as the pandemic reached the US, our team members were working from home, clients were struggling, and most hiring was put on hold. People stopped traveling, and airplanes were flying empty. Businesses screeched to a halt, and the stock market cratered. Many of us had friends who were sick with COVID-19. Concerts, the Final Four, and even the Masters Golf tournament were canceled. On March 22nd I wrote a blog (in retrospect somewhat naively) about the importance of perspective and offered advice on volunteering and recommended entertainment options on YouTube and social media platforms. I mentioned that I was following the COVID global numbers to see when cases peaked, thinking it would only be a matter of weeks and then life would return to normal. At the time there were only 300,000 cases worldwide.

As I write this on January 1, 2021, there are 20 million cases with 350,000 deaths. I have stopped watching the numbers every day because no one knows when the infections and death rate will peak. Hiring has resumed as companies settle into the new normal. The stock market has rebounded, though it is hard to feel relief when so many have lost jobs, businesses and, in some cases, loved ones. Our country is divided. It doesn’t matter what our individual politics are. It causes anxiety to see so much dissonance, whatever form it takes.

Every Crisis Offers Perspective and Gifts

The virus has yielded clues, but there is still so much unknown. Why do some people die and others escape unscathed? Is it really safe to fly? Can one still spread the virus after being vaccinated? When will all of this end? Will we ever get back to normal? Here is what I do know:

Everyone assesses risk differently. Every day each of us must make decisions about our safety. It is interesting how each one of us assesses risk. We are a people full of contradictions. One client microwaves his Wall Street Journal every morning before going to his gym. A friend gets manicures but is afraid to go to the dentist. Another friend believes the risk of being isolated and depressed is greater than the risk of going to the office. At first, I shook my head at the craziness of it all until it dawned on me that many people could question my choices. I have flown for business and vacation (taking precautions, masking, and social distancing) while not allowing anyone in our high-rise unit for the past nine months. I have learned not to judge how others assess personal risk. We are each on our own path.

We are hard-wired to give and help. I could devote an entire blog to instances of kindness and generosity. Sometimes these instances of true humanity are overshadowed by divisiveness and conflict. One artist friend created an online art gallery to raise money for first responders. Another friend fed ICU personnel in a local hospital with food delivered from a top restaurant. In times of trouble, look for the helpers. They are there.

We are resilient and adaptable and can find workarounds. Most executive search firms meet in person with a client’s board or executive team and prospective candidates. We discovered that not only could we meet new clients and interview candidates virtually, but we could do it well and successfully. Clients discovered that they could recruit, hire, onboard, and plan remotely. Boards found they could function through virtual meetings. Businesses quickly pivoted from working in offices to working from home. My guess is that business travel and working in an office will be forever changed. Because religious services, dinner parties, charity events, and restaurant gatherings pose health risks, most of us have become experts at Facetime, Zoom, park gatherings, and drive-by visits.

And yet—and yet. So much of our lives is centered on group connections and events. How I long to give a friend a real hug rather than an elbow bump or a virtual hug. Simple things like watching Fourth of July fireworks, attending a birthday party, client meetings, a football game, a casual dinner—things we all took for granted—I long for. And no matter how great a virtual concert or play is, there is just no substitute for the joy of seeing the Rolling Stones or Taylor Swift in a stadium full of fans.

Gifts of the Pandemic

As with any crisis, sometimes the gifts are not apparent in the moment. Yet there are by-products of any crisis or challenge which can help us through in these dark times. I polled some of our firm’s clients and friends. Just as we assess the risks of the pandemic differently, we each weigh the benefits individually. Some of their responses include:

Time—Unstructured Time. Professionally, the dramatic and abrupt cessation of weekly travel, meetings, business attire, and long hours at the office was initially quite unsettling. And personally, for many of us spending time on social activities was no longer an option. As one friend commented, “We were asked to shift from human doings to human beings.” Many reported improved and deepened relationships with their immediate family and friends.

Health and Fitness. For those of us who have escaped contracting COVID-19, there is gratitude for our health. Many have used this time to address fitness and adopt healthy eating and improved exercise habits.

A Time to Push in the Clutch and Reassess Priorities. Each New Year’s Eve we make resolutions for the coming year. Although life will not rapidly return to normal as we open the book on 2021, we will return to normal as we reach herd immunity through vaccination. As a result, this year we will get to resolve twice how we want to live our lives. Many have vowed to make different life choices as life eventually returns to normal (or some “new normal”). One client, who routinely traveled four days a week before COVID-19, has learned she can still be effective with less travel. Another client can’t wait to return to his old life. I do not know when the pandemic will end, but I do know this has changed us globally and individually forever.

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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director