Having just lived through one of the most difficult decisions I’ve faced as CEO of my current company, I also just learned a valuable lesson about what’s required in post-pandemic leadership.
As CEO of WorldStrides, a global organization that offers experiential educational travel, I recently presided over what few have done in more than two years: an in-person, all-hands gathering for more than 500 members of our global team. We had over 300 additional participants that followed the event which was live-streamed.
For two months, my leadership team and I debated the right approach. After an exhaustive and difficult planning process, what we decided is, by planning the gathering safely and intentionally, we could return to life in 3-D and help our team make up for lost time of learning, reinvention and collegiality.
With safety as the top priority, each attendee was required to show proof of vaccination, test pre-departure and undergo a rapid test upon arrival. Attendees were subsequently tested at the beginning of each day and were required to wear masks at all times. The strategy was to mitigate the risk as much as possible. The few positive cases—and we had a few—were provided quarantine accommodation or returned home in their vehicles if showing mild or no symptoms.
While our health and safety protocols were rigorous but necessary, I’ll admit I was concerned this could hinder some attendees’ experiences. But after the conference, so many people told me how beneficial it was to be in-person again that it reminded me that our tried and trusted managerial playbook—one that was developed for the previous version of “normal”—needs to be transformed. Immediately.
I, like so many CEOs, thought I knew the “new normal.” Yet this gathering and what it did to energize my own team reminded me how critical it is for leaders to re-evaluate and reinvent ourselves, our ways of working and most importantly our ways of learning to be successful.
During the meeting, representatives of The Harris Poll joined to talk about what’s ahead based the past two years. Most startling is the fact that 46% of Gen Z has experienced depression during the pandemic, and 43% have experienced burnout. The key reasons: lack of socialization and experiential learning.
Today, what’s clear is that people need to get back out into the world, to experience learning, work in-person and to have real life interactions with other people. And they are ready.
We are seeing this pent-up demand firsthand at WorldStrides. Already this year, we see a tripling of the demand for educational travel, study abroad, career exploration and other programs for both young people and adults—over the nearly 100,000 experiential learning moments we hosted in 2021.
What does this all have to do with us, business executives responsible for leading our companies into the future? We are managing employees, many of whom are struggling with pandemic-intensified stress and anxiety. How will different generations react to this paradigm, where stability is the exception? What new competencies will be required for managers to cope, to effectively recruit, evaluate, motivate, train and support their employees?
The list of questions gets longer each day, but the answer is refreshingly simple — education.
We have a unique opportunity to transform the workplace into a place of experiential learning, where employees are not just focused on achieving business objectives, but also acquiring skills and knowledge that can allow them to work more efficiently and grow personally and professionally.
Realizing that doing so is both necessary and beneficial, we will be able to help our teams and ourselves move forward from the complex challenges that the pandemic engendered.
And that includes helping everyone get back to seeing the world and each other in 3-D.