End-of-year reflection for 2020

By Marcus Coetzee, 12 December 2020.

The year is coming to an end. It has been a crazy year as I am sure we’ll all agree. Few of us would have expected a pandemic to rampage across the globe. Covid-19 has accelerated many good and bad trends. It has left millions of people more vulnerable than before. It has also revealed some opportunities for governments, businesses and non-profit organizations to improve their reach and positive impact.

This article contains my end-of-year reflection for 2020. I believe in the value of ‘after action reviews’ and in sharing them openly so others can learn. You can also see what I wrote in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Here is a template that I developed to help you with your own reflection

This has been a good year for me overall. While my income decreased, as one would expect in the midst of a pandemic, I managed to make several changes that have placed me in a stronger position than I was at the beginning of the year.

What was going on around me this year? 

South African entered lock down on 27 March 2020. Most of us had to rapidly figure out how to work in virtual offices while continuing to serve our customers and beneficiaries. Sadly, many people lost their jobs and had to find alternative careers or ways of earning an income.

I was amazed by how innovative several non-profit organizations were in making amazing adaptations to their strategies and business models. I provided 10 examples of such organizations to spread some inspiration around. I’ve especially been impressed with how they have used technology to support their beneficiaries.

Foundations and Corporate Social Investment departments also shifted their priorities and reallocated resources to tackle our collective crisis. I wrote about how CSI had to change gear to reflect the new reality.

In early April 2020, I wrote an optimistic article about some of the good things that might emerge from this lockdown. Despite everything bad that has happened, I believe that many of my positive observations will come to fruition. For example, we are seeing the impact of education technology and how it can link poorer students to top educational material.

With the onset of lockdown, I was very involved in helping leaders to restructure their organizations. During this time, I noticed how leaders were finding their decisions simpler, but not easier. It was easier for them to identify their constraints and options. However, it was emotionally difficult to implement these changes and make the necessary endings that were required. I saw how leaders suffered, and how they needed permission to grieve, reflect and heal.

After a few months, I noticed that leaders were beginning to look to the future again. In June 2020, I published an article about how leadership involves helping people to move towards a positive and ethical set of outcomes.

But despite this shift to the future, I noticed that leaders were struggling to make sense of the future. In early August 2020, I wrote about the Stockdale Paradox and how leaders had to accept the stark and brutal truth of what lies ahead, and the challenges for their organizations and beneficiaries. But at the same time, they had to convey a sense of hope that their efforts and cause would ultimately prevail. 

When lockdown started to lift further on 17 August 2020, I noticed that some of the people I worked with and some of my friends, were struggling to come out of the safe havens they had created during lockdown. I realized that some organizations were suffering from FOGO (i.e. the fear of going out), which is the opposite of FOMO (i.e. the fear of missing out.). I then wrote how leaders must help their organizations to venture out before it is too late and the cost of inaction becomes irreversible. 

As I write this article in the second week of December, it looks like a second wave of the pandemic may be on its way. However, South Africans are a stubborn and hardy bunch. I think we’ve learned how to function in the midst of the pandemic, and will find ways to move ourselves forward.

What did I do this year? 

I headed into the year with great enthusiasm, as most of us did. 

In the middle of March, my colleagues and I headed to Kenya on behalf of the AgriFI Challenge Fund for a seven-day trip. I was part of the team at Imani Development that manages this fund. We planned to assess several businesses and see if they would make good investments, which would improve the household incomes of small-holder farmers. 

We hoped to complete this trip before Africa ‘locked down’. However, on the night I arrived at my hotel, the Kenyan president announced that all foreigners would need to quarantine. He gave us a window of 48 hours to leave the country. We spent two anxious nights at the hotel before we managed to fly back to our respective countries, just 12 hours before this deadline. Fortunately, we figured out how to continue with our work remotely, with help from some local partners. This has kept me busy for much of this year.

I also spent a lot of time in April, May and June helping organizations to restructure, and revise their strategies and business models. 

I was able to take a break in July 2020 and focus on my writing. I desperately needed this ‘sabbatical’ after the rush of the previous months. I wrote the first draft of an ebook on how organizations can become more adaptable. In the ebook, I proposed that adaptable organizations have a remarkable ability to make sense of what is going on around them. Then they are equally good at making and implementing decisions with insufficient information. I hope to finish this ebook in early 2021.

Between August and December, I focused my efforts on helping Imani Development with AgriFI, and the new Enterprise Zambia Challenge Fund. In September I shared some of my insights on the mistakes that you should avoid when applying for impact investment.

I also managed to fit in my normal consulting work. I have coached social entrepreneurs, conducted strategic assessments and helped organizations to refine their strategies. I also helped with a project evaluation.

This work has kept me very busy. I’ve been working non-stop each day. My only break was my sabbatical in July. 

What did I succeed at? 

I managed to publish 14 articles and presentations. There are also two articles in the draft stage. I also wrote the first draft of the 32,000 word ebook, which I mentioned above.

I read plenty of books as usual. Jim Mattis’ autobiography, ‘Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead’, stood out. Mattis rose up through the United States Marine Corps and eventually became Secretary of Defense. This book contains many lessons on geopolitics, strategy and leadership, and insights into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While I don’t endorse these wars, the military science in Mattis’ book fascinates me. I will definitely read it again.

My second favourite book was, ‘The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck’ by Mark Manson. He emphasizes the importance of taking bold action and not worrying too much about what people think. His weekly newsletter is also very insightful. 

I continued to listen daily to podcasts and to be influenced by other people’s wisdom. My favourite work-related podcast in 2020 is Lead to Win by Michael Hyatt. He has a very modern approach to leadership and productivity, and specializes in helping overwhelmed leaders. 

I deepened my relationship with Imani Development. I lead the process to revamp the due-diligence methodology and tools that we were using in Kenya and Zambia. This was a big undertaking that drastically improved the rigor of this process and produced valuable insights on these businesses. 

I can feel my interest and focus shifting to more macro-projects where we’re dealing with complex and wicked problems, impact investment, regional value-chains, multiple stakeholders and economic policy. I hope to do much more of this type of work in the future.

I managed to improve my sleep habits, and this has improved my mental clarity. During lockdown I realized that I have been pushing myself too hard, and that I was struggling with low-grade mental and physical exhaustion. With lockdown I discovered that I could sleep for 8 to 9 hours a night, and that this helped me to perform better the next day.

In January I hired a part-time executive assistant to help me with several tasks. I am extremely happy with how this turned out. She is doing her masters degree in economics so understands the work that I do. She helps me with administration, social media accounts, email correspondence, scheduling, article research and editing. She is also a valuable sounding board. I highly recommend that overwhelmed leaders, consultants and freelancers hire a skilled assistant. 

I spent much more time in my neighborhood, where I discovered four new coffee shops with outdoor gardens and patios where I can write and reflect, while maintaining social distance and supporting local businesses.

My biggest achievement this year are the necessary endings that I made: 

  • I resigned from a long-standing ongoing contract. This had accounted for a significant portion of my income. I wanted to focus on my strategy consulting and writing.
  • I updated my rates to reflect the value of my time. This enables me to focus on helping fewer clients rather than needing to cram in lots of work. 
  • I became less accessible to people who wanted to meet and ‘pick my brain’ as opposed to having a formal consultation. This is something I started last year already when these types of meetings were using too much of my time. I have since limited this to email questions and sometimes a short courtesy-call. I rather use this time to write and share insights with a far broader audience. 
  • I stopped sitting in traffic and travelling to meetings. Before lockdown, this had consumed between one to three hours of my time each day. I’m going to be much stricter about the type of events and meetings that I travel to in the future. 
  • I stopped doing work that did not resonate with my interests and skills.

What did I fail at? 

My biggest battle has been trying to limit my news consumption. I had implemented a policy in 2019 whereby I only read the Economist Magazine. However, I lost this battle in March and have been checking the news multiple times each day. There was too much temptation to read the news for updates on the Covid-19 epidemic, protests in different countries, the US elections, and the social and economic challenges facing South Africa. There were many times when I lost faith in humanity, which undermined my ability to convey hope and encourage others. I then had to step away for a while to regain perspective.

I succumbed to an adrenaline-fueled rush in March and April as I tried to orient myself during the onset of the pandemic in South Africa, and prepare appropriately while helping others to do the same. I would have preferred to be more deliberate in my actions and less anxious about the future. 

There have also been times throughout the year when I’ve been overwhelmed with everything that must be done. I have managed to stay sane by obsessively using my calendar to schedule my time.

On a personal note, my biggest challenge has been to connect with my social group. I’m an extrovert who prefers to bond with my friends in person. This was not possible for much of the lockdown period. I found this taxing. Fortunately, since the beginning of September I’ve been able to persuade some of my friends to go for outdoor walks and join me at outdoor coffee shops. 

How will I do things differently next year? 

I anticipate an increase in poverty and related problems in the next couple years. Relief measures cannot continue forever. This distorted equilibrium will revert to a ‘normal state’. The consequences of this pandemic will become more apparent. I anticipate some political unrest in South Africa, as well as xenophobic violence, labour and service-delivery protests. Our role as leaders is to apply the Stockdale Paradox – to retain hope and vision while we continue to mitigate these problems and try and extract some good out of this social, economic and political turbulence.  

In light of this future, I intend to find a way to regulate my news consumption – something I discussed in the previous section. 

I also intend to embrace my home office since I’ve been using it a lot recently. I have already improved my lighting and bought a professional microphone. I am hunting for suitable art to put on my wall behind me so that it shows in my video backdrop. These changes will provide a more professional and satisfying experience for people I chat to over Skype, Zoom or Google Meet. It will also assist me to extend the reach of my consulting services beyond South Africa.

I look forward to travelling more in Africa as soon as we all get vaccinated. I will hopefully visit Kenya (again) and Zambia (for the first time) in 2021. Both trips were cancelled this year.

I definitely want to finish my book on how organizations can become more adaptable. While I finished a draft in July, I lost momentum when my billable work intruded.


This has been a crazy year. I’m sure we all agree. It accelerated many trends, both good and bad. It exposed vulnerabilities in our society and revealed opportunities for innovation. 

I expect next year to bring more of the same, and not provide the sense of closure that many of us hope for. I expect there to be turbulence on the horizon. This will give us more opportunity to build more adaptable and resilient organizations. 

I acknowledge that I have been fortunate. This is in part because of my demographic, and in part because of the cumulative decisions I’ve made over the years. I’ve also just been lucky.

I am satisfied with my decisions and performance on the whole. I feel that I’m in a good position and look forward to 2021.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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