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The daily rising death tolls. The scary image of the spiky virus. An age when terms like “lockdown,” “Zoom,” and “new norm” became the lexicon of the day.

And what of that new norm? Corporate leaders across the world are desperately trying to redefine what it may look like for their employees and business. But like a frustrated novelist, they end up rewriting those outlines on nearly a daily basis as the world continues to experience tectonic shifts. At Briefings, we can’t predict the future, so for now we believe leaders must take a deep breath and remind themselves of the past 12 months in hopes of finding clues to the future.

Covid Crisis

 

 

January

China reports the first death from the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, while the United States and other countries report their first cases.

February

The first death from the coronavirus outside of China is reported. The World Health Organization officially names the viral disease COVID-19.

March

Many states begin issuing stay-at-home orders, shutting down the economy and closing schools and businesses throughout the country.

April

Confirmed COVID-19 cases officially top 1 million globally. Unemployment in the US tops 30 million.

April–May 

Vaccine trials begin in earnest.

May   

Deaths in the US top 100,000.

July

Businesses in the US begin staggered reopenings. Global cases surpass 15 million.

August

Professional sports return to action and schools reopen with a combination of virtual and in-person classes.

September

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells states to prepare to potentially distribute a vaccine to essential workers by the beginning of November. Deaths surpass 1 million worldwide; US deaths top 200,000, the most of any country.

October

Trials of at least two potential vaccines are put on hold amid safety concerns. Ahead of the November election, the US presidential debates focus on the country’s response to COVID-19 and the pandemic’s impact on the economy. The US president and key members of his staff test positive for the virus.

November–December

Initial projections anticipate that vaccinations could start before the end of 2020, but it will still be well into the next year before enough people get access to the vaccine to return
to “normal life.”

Money

 

 

January

Delta Air Lines awards $1.6 billion in bonuses to employees. Three months later, COVID-19 sparks a ban on air travel, grounding Delta’s planes.

March

President Trump signs a $2 trillion stimulus bill into law; more than 6 million US workers apply for unemployment benefits in a single week. Stock markets around the world fall dramatically, moving into correction territory as a result of the pandemic.

April

US retail sales fall a record 16.4% during the month, much lower than the 12% predicted by analysts.

April–May  

In addition to layoffs, companies start furloughing employees and instituting pay cuts, bonus freezes, and other measures to preserve capital. Conversely, other companies raise wages and offer “hero pay” for essential workers.

May

US stocks begin to rally from March lows, with the Nasdaq, S&P 500, and Dow Jones Industrial Average all recording significant gains.

June

The US stock market records its best quarterly performance since 1998. After more than 30 million lost jobs over three months, hiring starts to rebound, with the US adding nearly 5 million jobs during the month.

August

After analysts drastically cut expectations, 83% of companies in the S&P 500 beat earnings estimates for the second quarter.

September

The US Federal Reserve says it will keep interest rates near zero through at least 2023 in a bid to restore economic growth and return people to work. The US Congress debates passing another stimulus plan that could potentially include bringing back a $600-a-week unemployment benefit and another direct payment of up to $1,200.

October

In a surprising vote of confidence, a majority of retailers polled by Korn Ferry say they expect holiday sales to be flat or even slightly up from 2019. The US presidential debates focus on the economic fallout from the pandemic, including the loss of jobs and health insurance for millions of people.

December

In the absence of a vaccine, e-commerce is expected to dominate holiday retail sales, with projections calling for a major increase from the 56% of shoppers that made holiday purchases online in 2019.

Leadership

 

 

January

The year starts off ominously for leaders, with more than 200 CEOs leaving or losing their jobs during the month.

March

With stay-at-home orders in place in countries around the world, leaders shift their workforces en masse to remote work. Leaders start cutting costs, reducing investments, and halting strategic plans like mergers and acquisitions in a bid to avoid layoffs.

March–April  

Despite their efforts, leaders are forced to start furloughing and laying off employees as the pandemic shuts down economies worldwide. A majority of publicly traded companies eliminate earnings guidance in the face of uncertainty.

June 

After three months of remote work and no signs of the pandemic slowing down, some companies declare that workers don’t have to return to the office until 2021, if at all. Indeed, some leaders start talking openly about reducing their office footprints and shifting portions of the workforce to remote work permanently.

July

After successfully navigating the immediate impact of the pandemic, and with the timeline for a recovery still uncertain, leaders begin positioning their organizations for the turn by making changes to strategy, structure, and staffing.

August

As areas of the US slowly begin to reopen, some companies start calling workers back to the office. CFOs—often second-in-command behind the CEO—leave their jobs in record numbers, hitting 80 departures for the year. The surge is partly due to the pandemic’s financial repercussions.

September

Highlighting the need to deliver new products and services digitally, leaders continue to plow money into investments in artificial intelligence, with banking, healthcare, and retail collectively expected to invest $42 billion in AI by 2024. In a bright sign for leadership, the number of women CEOs of Fortune 500 firms reaches an all-time high of 38 with the appointment of Linda Rendle as the CEO of Clorox.

October

As the US presidential election heats up, CEOs face increasing calls from employees, customers, and investors to express a stance on social issues. Two-thirds of consumers in a global survey said that when making purchasing decisions, the position of a company’s CEO matters. Optimism returns to the C-suite, with one-third or more of CEOs saying they expect business conditions to improve and plans for hiring, investment, and sales to increase over the last quarter of the year.

November-December

Leaders head into 2021 amid continued volatility and uncertainty in the economic and political landscape.

Purpose & Diversity

 

 

January

With less than 4% of executive positions at S&P 500 companies held by Black Americans, pressure from employees, investors, and customers grows for companies to review internal racial-bias policies, improve hiring practices, and release diversity progress reports.

February

As the coronavirus marches across the world, a shortage of personal protective equipment prompts corporate leaders across industries to start producing masks, hand sanitizer, and other safety products.

March

With employees working from home and taking care of kids or others, companies step up wellness and mental health efforts to help get care to those in need.

April

In a show of commitment to their people and purpose, Visa, Bank of America, Danone, and other firms pledge not to lay off workers because of the pandemic.

May

In the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody, CEOs publicly condemn police brutality and systemic racism, expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Adobe, Gap, Google, Microsoft, Morgan Stanley, and more than two dozen other companies sign a letter protesting the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.

June

Amid mass protests across the US against racial injustice, retailers like Sephora, West Elm, Rent the Runway, and others sign a “15% pledge,” promising to reserve 15% of inventory for Black-owned brands. Adidas, Facebook, Target, and other companies pledge to increase hiring of diverse candidates by 20% or more, while Walmart, PayPal, SoftBank, and others set up multimillion-dollar funds to support Black- and minority-owned businesses and encourage entrepreneurship. For the first time ever, major companies like Nike, Twitter, and JPMorgan Chase offer a paid company holiday to employees in recognition of Juneteenth, which observes the end of slavery in the US.

July

Wells Fargo partners with Feeding America to provide 50 million meals to families facing food insecurity because of the pandemic. Other companies, including Kraft Heinz, Albertsons, and Pepsi, donate millions of dollars to food banks.

August

The NFL season starts with most stadiums not allowing fans and the league reversing course on peaceful protests from players in support of Black Lives Matter.

September–October

After no charges are filed against police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other corporate leaders reaffirm their positions against police brutality and racial injustice.

December

Against the backdrop of the past year, experts anticipate organizations to make diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and other social-impact commitments a core part of their business models.

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