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Reflecting on 2021 & Looking Ahead to 2022

Welcome to this seasonal edition of The Coaching Conversation. I'm really pleased to welcome my friend Jed Hassid to talk through how we’ve found 2021. So, it's now time to sit back, relax and enjoy The Coaching Conversation.



Graham: Before we start, I will just invite Jed to tell you all a bit about himself, his work and the clients that he was.

Jed: Hello and festive greetings to everyone. Thank you very much for inviting me here today. I am an executive coach. I work with high growth business leaders to help them establish their vision for their company, and ultimately to help them achieve that vision. I work with many and varied clients from professional service organisations through to undertakers and theme parks.

Graham: This episode is a reflection on 2021, and it can't be anything other than the most extraordinary business year in living memory! It's that the confluence of three enormous events in one year at the same time - clearly, we've had the backdrop of the pandemic, Brexit's effect is really beginning to impact on everybody, and then towards the end of the year, our consciences got pricked with COP26 and the importance of the environment, and our roles as business leaders in that challenge have all come to the fore. So, 2021 has been one of the most challenging years for clients. What are the sorts of things that you found with your clients – What are the challenges they face?

Jed: Well, one of the things that clients have been challenged with has been working from home. Now, at one level, there was absolutely no alternative - one of my clients could not open full-stop - so zero income – and what could he do to try to at least some cash into the cash register? He was quite innovative and creative in what he decided to do, and he was able to generate at least some cash by encouraging his colleagues to work from home.

Yes, there was some furlough, but it was the level of creativeness that struck me most. I did a poll amongst some clients in the professional service area. I asked about 75 people whether working from home had had a positive, neutral, or negative impact. And it really surprised me that only 9% of those 75 people said it had a negative impact on them or on the business. So that suggests to me that yes, working from home has its challenges - I'm sure we may touch on them a bit later on - but, for people who can do things differently in their organisation, there are other ways to operate than the ways that they have always operated and they ca

n still be successful. That 9% really surprised me and profits have flown as a consequence.

Now, I'm not for one moment suggesting that what we need is another pandemic - far from it - but by the same token, it does demonstrate that if you've got a really strong management team that is able to think differently, to say ’okay, this is a challenge - let's make it into an opportunity', then that is absolutely critical to be able to cope with pretty much whatever life and business throw at us, which of course can be many.

Graham: The effect of the pandemic is really testing everybody in the sense that it's happened. It's immovable. You can't change it. As an individual business or business leader, you've just got to deal with the fallout and the consequences as it directly impacts you – such as working from home.

Another aspect, combined with Brexit, is that it has created a very large hole in the workforce - potentially a million people have left the UK workforce in the last 18 months. Have any of your clients been struggling with finding talent, and keeping it?

Jed: Oh, absolutely - pretty much across the board. The leisure business that I referred to a few moments ago, has a core of full-time employees and then its numbers swell to four or five times the full-time number for seasonal work. Finding people for a seasonal basis has been horrendous for that particular business. Again, the ability to adapt, and the ability to think ‘what is it that would attract somebody to work for us?’ has come to the fore. This idea about, we're quite familiar with being able to answer the client question of ‘why should you buy from us?’, but if we put it on its head - the business then had to say ‘why should an employee come and work with us?’. What's the employee value proposition?

So, a number of my clients have been working on that conundrum and saying, how can we make ourselves valuable to a potential employee? Oh, and by the way, it's not necessarily about money. Of course, money is important, but the ability to understand what's important to potential employees in their lives. They might be nest building, so income is really important. They might be raising a family and therefore the flexibility to be able to work from home or not becomes really important as part of that ability to attract the talent. So, flexibility as the employer has been key.

Graham: You used the word ‘adapt’ - that also means changing your mindset around the relationship you're going to have. It strikes me that one of the lessons that some of my clients have seen in this particular subject is that the boot is now on the other foot - and if you want to retain talent if you want to attract talent, you're the one that as an employer is going to do the work. You've got to make a convincing case to them that you are going to be able to meet their expectations fully and well.

That's been quite difficult for some of our clients because we've had decades of not necessarily needing to do that. The feeling that they should, in some way, give up this authority has been a challenge. The other aspect is it actually can cause some quite nasty, unexpected consequences with the HR law because you can't really discriminate between employees doing similar work. So, if you bring new people in on substantially different pay scales, that's the problem. If you bring them in on significantly different terms and conditions, you can unlock Pandora's box that you weren't really intending. So, what we found, is that it mirrors exactly what you said - the more creative, the more flexible you are, and the more you are prepared to do something different with employees, IS making progress, but you've got to see as much through their lens as your own.

Jed: Absolutely. Another element that I would argue is that leaders have developed their careers up to this point, quite often they have been looked up to, and the expectation has been that they are the ones who will guide and control the organisation. So, we've got a body of people who have learned how to lead from a relatively stable situation, where the expectation is that they do exactly that, and now we find that to be really effective in this uncertain world, in which we now need a more agile and a more flexible, networked approach; where leaders certainly give direction, but that traditional, ‘command and control’ attitudes and ways of operating, are just not effective and they aren't able to be sufficiently agile to be able to cope with what is being thrown at them.

Individually within networks - we all know about social networks; LinkedIn and Facebook - It's exactly the same in business. The power of networks to be able to solve problems and deliver value to customers is absolutely critical. And it can't rely on the traditional top-down to flow and cascade of information.

Graham: Moving on the subject towards the impact of Brexit. Have any of your clients felt that Brexit brings with it a challenge or an opportunity?

Jed: More of a challenge just at the moment. Trying to encourage people to think of them as an opportunity can take a bit of skill. For example, I've got one client whose cost base is increasingly being challenged because some of the manufacturing facilities are in China and the transportation logistics costs have gone through the roof. What they're also finding is that their ability to apply price increases to their own products is limited contractually. So they're certainly being squeezed. The cost base generally is going up - maybe not at the top of the organisation - but certainly in the middle and towards the bottom of the organisation.

They say to me ‘we know that you want us to encourage and think about opportunities, but what part of increased costs and margins being squeezed, do you not understand?’ So, it is a bit of a challenge for us as coaches to say ‘Yeah, but it's an opportunity. Let's think about it’. So, you just have a temporary disability.

Graham: Personally, I’ve had direct exposure to clients whose European markets have quite literally evaporated either because the paperwork with logistics prohibits them from physically moving goods, or because they're no longer able to service their customers, partly because of the pandemic, partly because of the Brexit regulations.

I've seen a number of very innovative solutions to keep one form of a show on the road. So, one of my clients who bought lots of products in from Spain is now bringing them directly from Morocco. So, it's shipped from Morocco to the UK, as opposed to a truck from Spain where the paperwork is no different to what it was pre-Brexit because it's from Morocco.

I've seen another client who sends about 25% of their production into the mainland and was simply unable to get through the ports into France. So, they found innovative ways of getting their product into Germany and to Eastern Europe by moving the product into Sweden, and then from Sweden into Denmark and then down into the mainland. And so, by finding new routes - which aren't cheap, it's not necessarily an economic decision here - but they found routes to keep customers satisfied.

One of the really strange things is some of the regulations that were in place pre-Brexit, particularly for exporting to places like Russia, were made on the basis of being a member of the EU. Now we're not a member of the EU, that previous documentation is now unacceptable to the Russians, but we don't have in place replacement documents. So that market is closed unless you can move the product to Europe, and then from Europe into the Russian Federation. So there have been some very serious challenges from our clients from Brexit, but definitely being hit by it, they are doing their best to mitigate or to find creative solutions.

Finally, COP26 - What do you think that that's meant or is going to mean in the short term for many of us?

Jed: I think, like anything, the reaction of the business community will follow a bell curve. Some people will be in the Vanguard and see it as really important - I could even link it back to one of the topics we've just been talking about, namely the acquisition of talent. So, for some, it's going to mean being very clear about the values and the purpose of that organisation and the clarity with which they are able to explain how they are going to deal with COP26 in their own way.

They may well not only be able to give dividends in terms of financial performance but also enable them to acquire talent because these issues are increasingly important to the talented, labour pool that is coming into the market.

I have to say, at the other end of the spectrum - people I was in the workshop with yesterday said ‘I'm very clear. I'm operating in this geographically very tight market and at the moment I don't need to bother’ - Clearly that isn't a sustainable position in the medium term, but short term they can probably get away with it. Longer-term, though over the next 5, 10 years, increasingly I think there are going to be financial implications from an accounting point of view, in the sense of trying to understand the liabilities associated with probably the larger organisation - what those financial liabilities are as a consequence of having to offset their carbon exposure, and what that is going to do to their balance sheet and their ability to raise finance. That's probably further down the track for most, but certainly, that's going to have a substantial impact, at least initially, on the larger organisations moving on.

Graham: One of the strange things about 2021 is the amount of success I've seen clients have. Despite all of the challenges, a number of my clients have been having record years. I can't put it any other way, and they seem almost embarrassed if not nervous about celebrating success. Are your clients good at celebrating success?

Jed: I can think of one particular, one who celebrates, or is currently celebrating, by buying a property in Spain - that was his response to the windfall. I think more often than not, leaders can be very driven individuals – they just strive continually to the next goal, to the next goal, and it can be a bit of a challenge sometimes to just reflect on what it is that you've actually managed to achieve - especially in the light of the challenges that we've been talking about.

I'm working with a company at the moment that are in a medical device distribution and their results this past year have been wonderful. So, the really nice challenge that they've got is to say ‘okay, then we don't want to go back to the run rate that we had before the windfall, so what are we going to do?’ - and ask me on Friday and I'll let you know what the outcome of that planning session is – but it's a really nice problem to have.

Graham: I have found that businesses have really slogged through 2021 and that they have taken the time to say thank you for sticking with us. They really recognise the successes that they have and not just the windfalls, that they’ve worked hard for this week. It's a matter of people feeling appreciated. What has been on every level, a difficult, very long year.

Jed: This brings things back to where we started - we mentioned working from home, and one of the better examples of how people coped is that leaders' and managers have kept in very close contact. The well-managed, well-led organisations have kept in close contact with their colleagues. And now that we're sort of hopefully getting to 'more normal’ working, that habit has continued, so people are checking in more often, and people are able to say thank you very much informally without waiting for the appraisals form - that ability to check in on a regular basis is really powerful.

Graham: That leads me onto the next subject. I think in 2021, it's become totally acceptable to speak out loud about mental health, about well-being, and it's not seen as a sign of weakness or failure, and indeed employers have embraced this. Lead employers have encouraged their staff to share their problems and see what can be done to help each other. What, what have you seen as best practice in your client base?

Jed: I can think of one particular client in the professional services area, where in the past, the way that people viewed success was to pretty much work all hours sent. And now, as a result of all the challenges that we've been talking about, they've actually realised that a balance of life and work-life balance is needed; the ability to turn off your screen and do not send emails to colleagues at all hours - even Microsoft sends a little message at the top of the screen saying, '’think about it when you compose this email, when you're going to send it’.

It's absolutely critical not to put pressure on colleagues, right through to some organisations I know have pretty much thrown out, not so much the rule book, but the traditional way of operating, where they saying ‘here are the objectives and - as long as you achieve the objective - how you do that and when you do that, is entirely up to you. If you prefer to work at three o'clock in the morning, so long as the mental health is there, then fine. You can then take 2, 3, 4 months off - It's entirely up to you. But that is also a really interesting way of how the market seems to be moving. Certainly, this is not relevant for all of us, but some people have been quite creative.

Graham: I think it's been interesting because it's so easy for working from home to turn into living at work. You've got to have this balance and employers are going to have to respect it. I think in my experience, it's been a learning curve. There's been a build-up of trust; people being out of sight out of mind. Figuring if I can't watch them every day, I don't know what they're doing and when they're supposed to be doing it. There's been a situation where employers have been feeling that they need to have some kind of technology solution that is tracking people's own time and all this sort of stuff. I think we've moved through that phase and we've come out the other end and people are saying ‘You're a responsible individual. I trust you with my work. You get it done the way it's best for you provided it, meets all the other criteria for our customers and then the rest of the team’.

I think we haven't matured as a management population. The other aspect I think is we are now beginning to see clients work out what the new regime is beginning to look like. It isn't a hundred per cent, there's got to be social interaction. There's got to be part of an organisation. You've got to feel that you're in a team of some kind, and have a relationship with them - you're not just isolated at home and it's all zoom or email. I think that maturity is coming.

Jed: I see signs of that; one particular client, who had big savings and productivity gains in terms of people working from home and not losing time commuting and so on, but they started to lose the spontaneous combustion and the exchange of ideas. And so, they've moved back to a more blended situation where people want to and do go to the office and work together and collaborate.

Graham: As we come to the end of 2021, what are the big things your clients are thinking about going into 2022?

Jed: I think that the principal challenge is about how to create, and manage, and develop a level of trust. You mentioned it a few moments ago, and it's absolutely critical. It's about how we lead an organisation. That element of trust that we have with employees and colleagues, and that we have in the organisations, but trying to challenge the existing way in which we check-up on somebody. I have a client who gets people to check in and check out with facial recognition software, but actually, so long as they are doing the job and the customers are ecstatic in the experience that they get, then does it matter? I think to continue to encourage people to think about people and implicitly trusting them when they joined your organisation is key. There was this implicit trust in the person to whom you've given them the job. So, let's continue with that level of trust and treat people as adults.

Graham: We are recording this session at a point where the Omicron conversion is beginning to cast doubt and fear and uncertainty again as we go into 2022. The thought that COVID was going to be behind us. The thought that we were going to go back to some kind of normality is probably dawning on people and that 2022 could look awfully like 2021 with all sorts of uncertainties. We're going to live in a world of greater uncertainty than we're used to, and as we talked about earlier, the agile performance in our client base shows that the adaptable people will thrive.

Well, that’s the end of today’s session. Please everybody take care, Season’s Greetings and we'll see you in 2022!


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