April Showers Bring May Flowers
By Cathi Gerhard, Professor of English & Professional Communication at Penn State
An oft quoted phrase comes from a poem called “The Wasteland” by TS Eliot: “April is the cruelest month.” But the full stanza goes like this:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
We find ourselves looking back on what seems like a metaphorically long April of cruelty, death, memory, and dullness … having been pummeled by showers of disease (Covid), economic hardships, and storms of depression — just to name a few. The only consolation in our feelings of isolation and despair come from the fact that in this we have not been alone. It’s been a systemic, widespread storm affecting everyone on the planet in ways both large and small for the past few years.
But this week, the small cutting from my favorite lilac bush (planted by my mother when I was a child) that I took from my family farm before we sold it to a new family, finally bloomed for the first time in the backyard of my new home on The Hill in Latrobe. Yes, as the poem suggests, I take it as a hopeful and encouraging sign from the dead. [My mother passed away in 2018]. A small, fragile root took hold and survived the struggle to begin again in a new place.
Things often never get back to normal the way we often hope. And I’ve heard that phrase A LOT since the pandemic began. When I moved away from Pennsylvania to North Carolina for work in 1994, I put a framed piece of artwork by Mary Englebreit on my office desk that depicted the phrase “Bloom Where You’re Planted” as a way to inspire me to embrace all the changes I was facing. It wasn’t easy to remain positive or acclimate to my new world, but I eventually found ways to grow different varieties of flowers instead of mourning the familiar wilted blossoms I left behind.
It’s now the merry month of May (literally and figuratively, to quote another poet), and time to grow. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to make the most of change in beautiful and sustainable ways. While this sentiment is important for us all on a spiritual level, it’s also a call to action for commerce and community:
Business owners expect to make adjustments to their companies and how they operate. And when there’s an extraordinary event, such as the Great Recession, many companies have to seek out new markets, downsize, and change their mix of products or services. But the pandemic was a situation that no one had ever experienced. It forced change upon businesses and industries that had taken their way of working for granted. (Rosenberg)
As we emerge from this long “winter of discontent” many of us are still struggling from its effects and lacking a clear direction for moving forward. Consider the following questions:
What have we learned from adversity?
What still works, and what doesn’t?
How can we adapt to the current climate?
How can we become more purpose-driven?
What do we have to offer that can bloom right now, and what can we plant to bloom later?
Businesses who survived the challenges of the past few years took the time to consider their answers carefully and have a few things in common. Lauren Wingo, writing for the US Chamber of Commerce in 2021, identified six traits that allowed these organizations to pivot and continue growth:
According to business consulting firm McKinsey & Company, “companies need to understand what customers will value, post-COVID-19, and develop new use cases and tailored experiences based on those insights.”
Call it the “great unfreezing”: in the heat of the coronavirus crisis, organizations have been forced to work in new ways, and they are responding. Much of this progress comes from shifts in operating models. Clear goals, focused teams, and rapid decision making have replaced corporate bureaucracy. Now, as the world begins to move into the post-COVID-19 era, leaders must commit to not going back. The way in which they rethink their organizations will go a long way in determining their long-term competitive advantage … Organizations are also showing a more profound appreciation for matching the right talent, regardless of hierarchy, to the most critical challenges. (Sneader and Sternfels)
What do the six concepts have in common? A human-centered focus that trumps the corporate entity. The evolutionary models of business and industry predicatively called this “Society 5.0” — a balance of economic advancement with the resolution of social problems through integration of physical and cyber spaces. In layman’s terms, it was a warning about the problems to come from a resistance to the essential transition between 20th and 21st century modes of operation.
In 2017 Yuko Harayama (Executive Member – Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, Cabinet Office of Japan) defined the emerging landscape as “a society where the various needs of society are finely differentiated and met by providing the necessary products and services in the required amounts to the people who need them when they need them, and in which all the people can receive high-quality services and live a comfortable, vigorous life.”
Breaking through the “Five Walls”: Realizing a new economy and society in which discontinuous and disruptive changes are expected to occur will require breaking through five walls. (Harayama)
The pandemic created an opportunity for employees to respond to simmering concerns over work-life balance, salary and cost of living disparities, and toxic environments. According to the US Bureau of Labor & Statistics, 47 million people quit their jobs in 2021, and another 4.5 million resigned in March 2022 alone. It has been called “The Great Resignation” (Miller and Yamada).
Many attribute their decision to being burned out. Some 89% of those who either recently left their job or were planning to do so said they felt burned out and unsupported, a survey by education tech firm Cengage found. The survey, conducted in November 2021, polled 1,200 U.S. adults aged 25 and older who either quit in the last six months or said they plan to quit in the next six months.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has had serious repercussions on people’s mental health. More than 30% of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder from March 30 through April 11, according to the National Center for Health Statistics’ Household Pulse Survey. Prior to the pandemic, in 2019, that number was 10.8%. (Fox)
As the post pandemic unfolds, workers are reassessing their relationship to their jobs. According to Time magazine, “the modern office was created after World War II, on a military model—strict hierarchies, created by men for men, with an assumption that there is a wife to handle duties at home. But after years of gradual change in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, there’s a growing realization that the model is broken.” Employers and employees alike are now tasked with an overhaul of the status quo, one where actions matter more than words.
A Pew survey in January found that 66% of unemployed people have seriously considered changing occupations—and significantly, that phenomenon is common to those at every income level, not just the privileged high earners. A third of those surveyed have started taking courses or job retraining. (Lipman)
“I think that it is important to build a social foundation that allows for game changers,” encourages Harayama, “one where these participants can continue to take on challenges, even if they fail at first. We are now firmly planted in crisis-related disruptions with labor and supply chains, so adaptability is essential. That will mean changing the ecosystem and cultivating nontraditional collaborations with a variety of partners who can help us put people first in order to keep blooming. Mix up your memories of the “good old days” and nourish the dulled roots of leadership with a fresh blend of sustainable style and substance.
RESOURCES FOR ACTION:
Leadership Greater Latrobe programs to educate and motivate a diverse group of citizens for effective community and organizational leadership. Coming soon!
The Readiness Institute at Penn State, as first envisioned by The Heinz Endowments, helps learners achieve community and future readiness. We are a service and outreach institute that collaborates with education, industry, and community partners to create learning experiences for diverse audiences. https://readinessinstitute.psu.edu/
Corner Launchbox: educational accelerator program is a hands-on program that helps startups move early-stage ideas from concept to commercial viability. Better understand the problem/need; Clearly define your target customer; Test your assumptions and the market.
Dekker, Thomas. "The Merry Month of May." The Shoemaker's Holiday, vol. Act3, no. Sc.5, 1599, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47311/the-waste-land.
Eliot, T S. "The Wasteland." The Criterion, vol. 1, no. 1, Oct. 1922, p. 50.
Englebreit, Mary. Bloom Where You're Planted. 1984, Colored pencil and marker on paper, ME Enterprises, St. Louis, MO.
Fox, Michelle. "Employers boost mental wellness benefits amid the Great Resignation." CNBC, CNBC, LLC/NBCUniversal, 5 May 2022, www.cnbc.com/2022/05/05/employers-boost-mental-wellness-benefits-amid-the-great-resignation.html. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Harayama, Yuko. "Society 5.0: Aiming for a New Human-centered Society." Hitachi Review, vol. 66, no. 6, Aug. 2017, pp. 8-13, www.hitachi.com/rev/archive/2017/r2017_06/trends/index.html. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Lipman, Joanne. "The Pandemic Revealed How Much We Hate Our Jobs. Now We Have a Chance to Reinvent Work." Time, edited by Edward Felsenthal, Time USA, LLC, 1 June 2021, time.com/6051955/work-after-covid-19/. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Miller, David, and Haley Yamada. "The Great Resignation: Its origins and what it means for future business." ABC News, ABC News Internet Ventures, 3 May 2022, abcnews.go.com/US/great-resignation-origins-means-future-business/story?id=84222583. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Rosenberg, Joyce M. "At many companies, changes from COVID-19 are now permanent." AP News, The Associated Press, 8 July 2021, apnews.com/article/coronavirus-pandemic-health-business-05c1a64aed220e1d13ad7e770099b2e9. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Sneader, Kevin, and Bob Sternfels. "From surviving to thriving: Reimagining the post-COVID-19 return." McKinsey & Company, McKinsey & Company, May 2020, www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/future-of-work/from-surviving-to-thriving-reimagining-the-post-covid-19-return. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Strategy Forum, MIT SMR. "Has COVID-19 Permanently Changed Business Strategy? What Experts Say." MIT Sloan Management Review, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 30 Sept. 2021, Has COVID-19 Permanently Changed Business Strategy? What Experts Say. Accessed 5 May 2022.
Wingo, Lauren. "6 Common Traits of Businesses That Thrived During the Pandemic." CO, US Chamber of Commerce / Good Company, 26 Jan. 2021, www.uschamber.com/co/start/strategy/successful-business-traits. Accessed 5 May 2022.