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Getting ready to lead in the 80% economy

The economy won't be back to normal even when it's "normal," so what does that mean for you as a leader?

5 min read


Getting ready to lead in the 80% economy

Unsplash photo/SmartBrief illustration

Listening carefully to recent discussions, particularly from experts, about life after lockdown, one thing is clear: “normal” won’t be normal for a while. Scott Gottlieb, former FDA commissioner captured for me what to prepare for: the 80% economy.

Gottlieb predicts that until we have a vaccine for COVID-19, normal will still look a lot like self-quarantine.

So what might it be like to lead a team or a company in the 80% economy?

The 80% economy

According to Donald G. McNeil Jr., a health and science reporter for The New York Times, the fastest vaccine ever produced (for mumps) took four  years to create. While modern techniques make an 18 month vaccine for COVID-19 look plausible, it’s still a best-case scenario. This means that, for some time, our businesses must adjust to operating in an economy where people must stay 6 feet apart.

In the 80% economy, the money people used to spend on social gatherings will go elsewhere. Workplaces will accommodate physical distance between employees and make remote work normal. Company culture will no longer be bought with free soda; it will be earned with courageous leadership. Signposts of workplace equality will change, as the people who can prove COVID-19 immunity become more desirable employees. And, perhaps most disruptive, the very definition of who is “essential” in our economy, and who isn’t, will shift.

The 80% economy, just like we’re experiencing today, will move everything into a new balance. If you happen to be in a position of plenty for the moment, many of your colleagues, employees, customers and friends will not be. For some, their suffering will only grow, and their ability to contribute to you, with their focus, time and purchases will come under strain.

If you’re in one of the harder-hit positions, you’ve already begun the response to the hard new reality. You may experience fear and anxiety and working to rebalance it with hope. That hope may lead you to focus on the short-term at the expense of the long-term. It’s time to think about the long term.

Transformation: Wanting the future you have

COVID-19 has forced us all into rebalancing. If there is no immediate return to normal, leaders will no longer have the option to react. Instead, the 80% economy will become a planning variable you have to factor in through multiple business cycles.

That is why now is the time to consider rebalancing everything, not just your resources. Be proactive about rebalancing your objectives, including your definition of success. Take yourself and your business down to its core and use the time we’re in as the catalyst to achieve something greater.

No butterfly ever came into being without a fuzzy little caterpillar dissolving into goo. I’m sure that caterpillar wasn’t too happy about its future, and yet today it flies. And it does so by allowing its most core and life-giving DNA to do its job without resistance. What is the most life-giving “DNA” in your team, your company or yourself? How can you find it and give it room to grow into what it must become?

You begin by proactively rebalancing your objectives, resources and priorities. You begin by stripping it all bare and finding the bones of the thing. In your:

  • self, the bones are in your purpose, passions and gifts
  • team, the bones are in your collective purpose, talents and skills
  • company, the bones are in your mission, culture and employees

Focus on the bones, and then build yourself and others around you back up in ways responsive to the new environment. Talk to people in your life, your employees and your customers about what their needs will be in the 80% economy. Build yourself back up to provide that thing, even if it is not what you thought you’d ever build. Be ready to look different when you’re back up and running.

There will be some point in the days ahead where the discomfort, anxiety, worry and fear part just enough to give you a glimpse of what your future business may look like. When you see it, your heart will lift. All you must do in that moment is let your heart lift. Allow yourself to imagine a positive future and become the person, the business, the leader it demands of you. That’s how you win in the 80% economy.


Dana Theus is an executive and organizational coach. A thought leader on change, she cracks the code on personal power in the workplace for individual and corporate clients. In addition to her private practice, Theus helps organizations hone their leadership cultures into a competitive advantage. Follow her on Twitter @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn.

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