CEO Insider

It’s Time to Drop “New Normal” From Your Vocabulary

Alan Whitman

The idea of a “new normal” has permeated the conversation among business leaders for more than a year. We use the phrase as shorthand to refer to life and business during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it’s time to drop this figure of speech. Not only is “new normal” a tired cliché, but it also fails to represent the current business environment, which is anything but normal. So instead of “new normal,” let’s call this time what it is: The current—and future—state of doing business. A readiness for the next major shift.

In March 2020, the entire notion of “normal” was flipped on its head. What we emerge with today is an entirely different way of life. We have catapulted into the future in terms of technology, communication, the hybrid nature of work, and the need to quickly adapt our business models to meet the changing demands of the world around us.

According to a recent McKinsey Global Survey of executives, companies have accelerated the digitization of customer and supply-chain interactions and their internal operations by three to four years in the wake of COVID-19. And the share of digital or digitally enabled products in these businesses’ portfolios has accelerated by a shocking seven years. This isn’t simply a “new normal;” it’s an expedited jump into the future—which is now the present—of business.

“Normal” suggests complacency and comfort. However, to succeed in our rapidly advancing environment, businesses need to be extraordinary—which is anything but normal.

Embracing this mindset admittedly requires some time and introspection. One key is to remember that normal is in the past. Today, we’re in uncharted territory—there is no playbook or map to tell us where others have gone before us. This is equal parts exciting and challenging. I can attest to it myself as CEO of Baker Tilly, and it’s why we don’t use the term “new normal” to describe the present and future of our business operations. While many of our leaders came up in a very different work environment, we’re committed to what’s next—shattering stereotypes and breaking the mold of what it means to be a professional services firm.

So how are we moving forward in the current environment? 

It starts with having a strategy that enables us to shift intensity as our business requires. Baker Tilly’s ability to react to external forces is by design, not accident. We know our success depends on our team’s ability to pivot and flex to the situation around us—riding the wave instead of fighting the current. But it’s not a passive journey. It requires a proactive approach to leadership, and that proactivity must penetrate throughout any company, starting from the top.

A few of the fundamental changes we’ve made at Baker Tilly to move beyond “normal” include:

  • Coast-to-coast presence with borderless service. We have the local expertise and relationships to serve clients in any location, but zip codes don’t limit us. Instead, we bring together the right team to solve our clients’ unique challenges, wherever they may be. This gives us an innate freedom to truly consider what’s possible.
  • Creating a hybrid work experience—not just space. Work is much more about the what and why as opposed to the where and when. We’re redefining the office experience and finding new ways to connect with one another. Our team member networks, designed for and by our team members around shared interests and attributes ranging from parenthood to Pride to Peloton, are at an all-time high.
  • Providing team members with the resources they need to manage their work lives and personal lives, from back-up childcare and virtual educational programs for kids to enhanced health and wellness activities. While the lines have been blurred for quite some time, they are now completely erased, and we need to acknowledge and support that. Our unlimited time off keeps the focus on outcomes rather than hours. We also introduced “disconnect days” to encourage team members to log off, relax and enjoy a day without calendar alerts – and that includes me.

Although some business leaders were already making similar preparations for the changes we’ve seen during the pandemic, many expected this evolution to occur gradually. Others never even imagined they would see such drastic changes to workplaces during their careers.

But now, radical change is the only constant we can rely on. I bristle at the word “normal” because it conveys a sense of complacency, of slowly slipping back to the old way of doing business instead of taking the future into our own hands. It’s my job to ensure that doesn’t happen at Baker Tilly. As a leader, it’s your job to ensure that doesn’t happen in your own business. So how can you break free from this mindset and fully embrace the possibilities of the present? Here are a few things I’ve adopted and encourage of my team:

  • Think about change as progress. It is a subtle yet important nuance. Progress implies forward motion, forward-thinking. Change happens to us. Progress happens because of us.
  • Be relentless in your pursuit of what’s next. Start tackling the foundational challenges in your business now instead of leaving problems for the next generation. Start laying the groundwork for your long-term vision today so you can identify new ways to drive growth tomorrow. Always keep an eye to the future; if you’re only focused on the now, you’ll fall behind.
  • Foster a culture of curiosity and collaboration to deliver differentiated solutions quicker and more effectively. Embed diversity, inclusion and belonging into all aspects of business—from recruiting to client service. Make decisions with a diverse group of voices at the table to avoid blind spots.
  • Finally, never lose sight of your core values. While the goalposts have moved in terms of people’s expectations, motivations and options, your core values provide the ultimate playbook. They should guide every decision, inspire action and gauge how you do business.

We’re not waiting for the next transformative event, whether it’s a major shift in technology or another global crisis. Instead, our firm is operating in a constant state of readiness. We are taking leaps into the future, moving in time with the acceleration that was spurred by the pandemic.

Why should you follow our lead and let go of the old paradigm for success? Frankly, if you want to survive in the current business environment—the “new normal,” if we must grudgingly call it that—you have no choice. Business as usual is a thing of the past.

I want Baker Tilly to stay at the forefront, so every day, we lean forward, sometimes taking giant leaps and sometimes smaller steps—constantly pushing on the edge of what’s next. Now, we are primed to do even better work going forward and proactively embrace the extraordinary possibilities of tomorrow.

Written by Alan Whitman.

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Alan Whitman
Alan Whitman, Chief Executive Officer at Baker Tilly, a leading advisory CPA firm, providing clients with a genuine coast-to-coast and global advantage in major regions of the U.S. and in many of the world’s leading financial centers – New York, London, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Chief Executive Officer Alan Whitman leads Baker Tilly in its fundamental mission to enhance and protect our clients’ value. A progressive leader who challenges conventional thinking, Whitman is guiding Baker Tilly to create the advisory CPA firm of the future, today. Under his leadership, Baker Tilly is an international organization that embraces disruption to serve clients with clarity and excellence.

Whitman is driving bold investments in technology and innovation that enables a talented and growing workforce to thrive. A strong advocate for the profession, Whitman and his leadership team are personally involved in several strategic endeavors that are positioning accounting and advisory for the future. Beyond typical programs, Whitman is embedding the philosophy and practices of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging into all aspects of Baker Tilly.

Alan Whitman is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn.