When the calendar turned to March, and we hit one year since the World Health Organization officially stated Covid-19 was, indeed, a pandemic,  there was collective reflection on the global issues we faced for the better part of 12 months.  To me the collective reflection across the globe was an enlightening moment that made me take stock of my own year that was, and the year ahead.

Now here we are staring down the rest of 2021. There is undoubtedly a discernible light at the end of the year – and yet we are still presented with the question how do we get through this tunnel that we’re in and out the other side? 

We do so by embracing a fundamental need for change to thrive. We found ourselves last year saying, “we are just trying to get by” and “let’s just survive this bump in the road and on we go.” I believe to succeed in the future, we need to be open to change to adapt to our “next normal.” For business leaders, as we approach the one-year mark of when the world changed, it is now time to think about what does life now look like for employees and customers, what are key priorities in the wake of an ongoing pandemic, how do we lead, succeed and motivate?

As we begin that journey into what I’m calling the “next normal”, digital adoption has become paramount. Globally, time spent online and using digital commerce accelerated by years almost overnight. Digital is no longer a place or a descriptor, it is dogma. Pre-pandemic, some of the most globally innovative companies (the likes of Google, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon) were ahead of the game and adopted digital platform business models. The “next normal” is now, undoubtedly, the “Digital New Normal,” and it is here for every organization.

The question facing leaders now is how to help your organization not only survive but thrive in this “next normal”. How to see around corners to spot new opportunities before others do and even create them where they may not inherently exist? I believe there are three pillars leaders can embrace in this next normal to help their organizations thrive.

Be Open to Learning

Mentorship and a desire to learn are of utmost importance to any leader. You cannot grow and foster the growth of others if you are not open to being a lifelong learner. Have a vision, bring people along with you and be mindful of a greater purpose. As the world is changing rapidly around us, we must approach change with the openness to learn how to successfully embrace and adapt in the next normal. Whether it be our peers, direct reports or leaders from other companies who teach us methods and techniques as we look at this new digital landscape, it is fundamental to seek the knowledge.

I have had to embrace the dual role of leader and student, and it has reminded me that those two things are not opposites but always two sides of the same coin. I am grateful that it has never been easier to gain knowledge and perspective outside of formal education thanks to the vast network of resources like blogs, TED talks, books, podcasts, and other online resources.

Create a Hypothesis About the Digital Future of Your Business (And Build it)

Davos 2020 feels like a lifetime ago, but I still think about one of the key themes that stuck out during my time there —that we can create the digital-first future of our company (and our world, for that matter) by creating hypotheses about what it could look like. For leaders, it is critical to ask yourself what does your business or company look like in the next 5, 10, or 20 years and what do you need to get there? COVID-19 has only accelerated this mindset and now we see consumers operating at a pace or in a way we thought was at least 8-10 years in the future. If you wait for the vision to come to you, it’s already too late.

Let’s look at digital commerce, for example.We know that shoppers are adopting e-commerce faster than ever during the pandemic. We expect them to retain many of their online shopping habits, with an increased emphasis on safety, personalization, and speed. But what are the second- and third-order implications of this shift? 

The future of a digital business rests on exploring, adopting and integrating the use of things like touchless payments, cloud computing, supply chain agility, touchless payments, the use of AI for virtual “in-store” experiences. Once those silos are broken down a true digital next normal can be reached. Think about how your business can break down your silos to embrace the next normal.

Embrace New Ideas & Put Your Customer at the Core

Leverage your network to expand your horizons. New locales, new networks, new ways of thinking, even new ways of framing and approaching global challenges are eye opening. Nourish our innate curiosity and make time to discover new things. We’ll feel more connected, more alive, and be more prepared to thrive in the workplace of the future. And by evaluating our sense of scale and our role within the world we have a broader understanding of how customers think. For any business it is crucial to understand the customer and put them at the core of everything. They are adapting at lightspeeds and are ready for the digital next normal.

In this moment, “Job One” for leaders is to understand that the pre-Covid customer you think you know is very likely not the same person powering growth today. This reality calls us to update long-held ideas about our customer, rather than falling back on legacy data – especially when it comes to digital attitudes and behaviors. At the end of the daythe most transformative digital leaders will start by understanding and championing how consumers themselves have transformed.

In conclusion, as we approach the remainder of the year, can we look at a case study of how we truly thrive in this digital next normal phase? The answer is a resounding yes. I got the chance to live the prequel of this journey in China, where the 2003 SARS outbreak (among other things) is credited with pushing the county to the digital-first future into which the rest of the world is now embarking. Life in that future is dynamic and invigorating. It is full of chances to chase down new ideas, nimbly pivot, and continuously improve along the way. Let’s reimagine and re-engineer for our own future, because when we do finally come out of this tunnel, the world is going to look very different.