Leadership, large business

Walter White, CEO

Allianz Life North America

On overall leadership: "The pandemic and the widespread social unrest ignited by the killing of George Floyd magnified the disparate experiences of our employees based on their backgrounds and personal circumstances. I learned to listen more carefully and to broaden our approach to key decisions to accommodate a range of perspectives. I also learned to be more intentional about communication and to employ a range of media, since some conventional approaches to communication were constrained or eliminated by the remote work environment.

"The pandemic obliterated some long-standing approaches to running our company effectively, and we were forced to develop new approaches overnight. As the constraints are lifted and we redefine processes and systems for a hybrid work model, it will be important to experiment continuously, to monitor outcomes closely, and to gain comfort with a more frequent state of flux. Adapting to this state can actually be more challenging than reacting to the rapid, complete and singular change of the pandemic, and we need to be deliberate and disciplined in our approach."

On communication: "The virtual approach to meetings has largely worked well. It has not only allowed us to introduce some engaging new elements, but has also facilitated much greater attendance at our all-employee events. Longer term, as we structure most gatherings to accommodate a mix of in-person and virtual participants, we need to find the most effective combination of media, and to train ourselves to apply new techniques to structure and conduct such hybrid meetings."

Leadership,
midsize business

Jennifer Smith, CEO

Innovative Office Solutions

On leadership: "Communication, adaptability and intentional connectedness were the key areas of focus as we led through the pandemic. 'Just Communicate' is one of our core values, one in which we had to double-down on this year to ensure that we kept in front of a heavily remote workforce and those still working in our locations. We were transparent and clear about what we knew, what we didn't yet know, and how we were responding to any given development. It can be tempting to hold communication until you're certain about everything, but in such an evolving situation that's not a luxury you have. We felt it important to share as much as possible, even if we didn't have all the answers.

"Throughout the pandemic we met as a leadership team almost daily to discuss key indicators, daily news/guidance, and design business innovations that allowed us to remain successful through a very challenging environment. When your business is supplying workplaces and many move to remote working and have new needs, you have to be positioned to respond quickly.

"Overall, we learned that all of the decisions we'd made leading up to the pandemic set us up well to weather the storm. We've invested in people, technology, and a resilient model that allowed us to take on this challenge and show us the strength of our culture."

On communication: "We definitely became experts at using Microsoft Teams overnight, and we think these skills will serve us well as we return to the workplace. We've learned how easily we can pull together a group call on the fly and talk through an issue that otherwise might have resulted in a long unwieldy e-mail chain. We're excited to see how this additional capability and flexibility will enhance our workplace as more people return.

"We worked with leaders in all levels of our organization to be more intentional about how they're connecting with their people. Each leader found the right way to achieve that within their teams, especially those who were virtual. We saw people being creative and also with a heavy focus on virtual meetings we actually saw some people be even more connected than ever with others being readily available and only a quick Teams call away."

On back to office: "It's an exciting time, filled with opportunity to reconnect and also grow from the lessons over the course of the last year. As we've watched some people return to the office this month, its incredible how quickly people become energized and pick things up right where they left off. While we've done a great job of making it work during the past year, our culture and success depends heavily on in-person interaction and collaboration. There's a certain magic that comes from a vibrant workplace and we're excited to get back to that. As of June, we have people starting to come back to the office, many in a hybrid format as they make adjustments back to a more office-focused life. We'll gradually ramp up through the summer as more people become vaccinated and our employees can make adjustments to their schedules."

Leadership,
small business

Tom Beck, CEO

Northeast Bank

On communication: "We learned that having consistent, concise communication is very important. For the first time ever, we provided several videos that helped us connect with our employees. The advantage of this is that you can see a face, sense a tone, hear a voice and feel emotion. It is difficult to misinterpret a video compared to an e-mail. We also learned the importance of having an open dialogue with our employees. With a difficult year facing many challenges, it was, and is, important to the executive team to listen to concerns, stresses, etc., that our team has faced. By listening and being proactive, we worked as a team to solve problems and stay calm during a difficult time and learned how to move forward together.

"Working from home has somewhat forced us to think outside the box and make some changes. We developed some efficiencies and struggled with other processes. One change that was a difficult adjustment was picking up the phone or using e-mail instead of going directly to visit with employees face-to-face. We have a very warm and welcoming culture, so we ended up missing the camaraderie with each other. This was especially difficult for new employees who struggled to connect with others. To help provide more of a sense of 'normalcy,' we decided to make sure to have virtual events for our employees. We provided virtual happy hours of bingo, Scattergories and Q&As with team members. We also shared personal 'show and tell' items and showed off our pets during our employee meetings."

On innovation: "We also have embraced change in other ways, which has welcomed a variety of efficiencies around the bank. For example, we relied heavily on electronic ways of operating, including electronic filing, creating more electronic files, and digital signatures and document review via DocuSign, which in turn used significantly less paper around our three locations. We have also purchased more computers, laptops, software and other equipment to enable working from home, which provides more flexible working hours for our employees.

"Once we are back in the office, we will be experimenting with on-site meetings in conjunction with virtual meetings. We will be able to reach more employees at one time without having to repeat an in-person, all-employee meeting at each of our three offices. This is another great example of an efficiency that we have developed."

On back to office: "As we shift to the next stage of office life, we are experimenting with work from home options based on the responsibilities of each position. Not all positions are able to work from home due to customer-service priorities and job responsibilities. We want to maintain our culture and support our mission to build strong communities one relationship at a time, internally and externally. It is important to us that we keep our culture strong and keep our work family emotionally strong."

Clued-In Senior Management

Charlie Youakim, CEO

Sezzle

On leadership: "When you know who you're trying to create wins for, you can be more focused in your decisionmaking. By maintaining a laser focus on creating wins for these groups during the pandemic, we were able to ride out the rough seas relatively unscathed."

On communication: "I think the companies that do the best in these transitions are going to be the companies that have excellent intracompany communication and strong, diverse and inclusive cultures. In May, the leadership team completed a training session on giving and receiving feedback, and we're rolling that out across the entire company, which is an example of strengthening the communication muscles in the organization."

On back to office: "What surprised us the most was that we could be so successful in a fully remote environment. Prior to the pandemic, we were big believers that everyone had to be in the office. Now, we're not so certain that's the best approach and we're also thinking about how to minimize our carbon footprint by offering flexible work. As the office is opening back up, we're feeling the excitement from the team as many head back into the office. While that in-office switch is happening for many of the team, we're also trying to ensure our remote team feels included."

SPECIAL AWARD WINNERS
Leadership,large company: Walter White, Allianz North America

Leadership,midsize company: Jennifer Smith, Innovative Office Solutions

Leadership,small company: Tom Beck, Northeast Bank

Direction: Arctic Wolf Networks

Managers: MN Adult & Teen Challenge

New ideas: Geneva Capital

Doers: Gentle Transitions

Meaningfulness: Right at Home

Values: Genevive

Clued-in senior management: Sezzle

Communication: Bell Bank

Appreciation: SDG

Work/life flexibility: American Solutions for Business

Training: Cole's Salon and Spa

Benefits: Two Harbors Investment Corp.