The last year has changed how we all think about work — even those at the top.

Three executives were recognized with a special award for leadership in the 2021 Southeastern Wisconsin Top Workplaces. This year the winners for leadership are: Jim Popp, CEO of Johnson Financial Group, recognized for large employers, Susan Lovern, von Briesen & Roper s.c for midsize companies and John T. Thomas of Physicians Realty Trust in the small category.

The Journal Sentinel talked with Popp, Lovern and Thomas about how they led their companies during the last year. Here is an edited version of those conversations:

How have you instilled confidence in your workforce in the last year?

Lovern: I think calm, open, timely and transparent communication goes a long way in instilling confidence, and that is especially true during times of crisis and confusion. There have been lots of decisions to make, some very quickly, and regular communications with clear messaging was — and continues to be — a priority.

Popp: Our team can handle hard things; the real stress and anxiety comes from not knowing what’s going on or what to expect. One of my most effective communication tools last year was the use of short videos — captured on my cell phone — to keep our teams engaged and up to speed on what was happening.

Thomas: We worked very hard and very quickly to make sure people had the technology and tools they needed to work from home, plus flexible time to home school or otherwise take care of their families during the typical business day. We were also intentional with one-on-one check-in calls, small group video calls, and frequent town halls. We tried hard to relieve stress and anxiety, and that seemed to produce returns for our business, but even more importantly, brought us closer as a team.

What was the most difficult decision you had to make for your company in 2020? What did you do and why?

Lovern: We were scheduled to begin the build out and construction of our new Neenah office in mid-March 2020, consolidating three Fox Valley office locations into one. Whether to sign the documents and move forward with this project given the uncertainty of an emerging global pandemic was a big decision. We ultimately decided to proceed as planned and our new office has really been a game changer for us in the Fox Valley.

Popp: Probably the decision to keep our branch lobbies closed, even as competitors decided to open their lobbies. This was a decision with no clear right or wrong answer. In the end, we had to balance convenience for our customers against the safety and needs of our associates, many of whom were managing through child and elder care as well as their own health concerns.

Thomas: Fortunately, due to our business’s underlying strength with high-quality medical providers, coupled with our team’s outstanding productivity, we were not faced with the most difficult of business decisions. We didn’t need to lay anyone off, furlough staff, or halt or reduce dividend payments to our shareholders. The decision to transition to remote work in March 2020 was an easy one, given the family-first culture we had already built. Canceling the 2020 family summer picnic, my favorite “work day” of the year, was very painful.

What are you doing to make sure everyone feels included?

Lovern: Recently many of our firm leaders participated in diversity and inclusion training with Beth Ridley of The Brimful Life. One of our main takeaways around inclusion was the importance of encouraging and listening to all voices. In a largely virtual environment, putting this into practice includes building stronger relationships through micro moments, such as talking about shared experiences, goals or interests, and encouraging everyone’s participation in virtual meetings.

Popp: With almost 90% of our associates working remotely, staying connected has been a challenge. We’ve worked hard to increase the frequency of our communication while also encouraging our teams to have some fun along the way. From funny videos to virtual celebrations and town hall meetings, we continue to look for fun ways to stay connected.

Thomas: We also always welcome team feedback, whether it’s positive or negative. This year, we just tried even harder, and called on our team members to lead as well, in their own way. Everyone member of our team has a leadership role, both within our walls and in our community. One leader provided water and masks to peaceful protesters walking by our office. Another leader hosted a town hall on mental health awareness, where she shared her personal story, and one of our newest team members shared his. Yet another leader helped us all to understand, me in particular, why we are a long way from racial, ethnic, gender, and LGBTQA+ equality and how we as a company can make a difference.

What did you learn about leadership in 2020?

Lovern: Resiliency and adaptability are critical, and it is almost impossible to over communicate.

Popp: As leaders, we found out that staying consistent, connected and in sync is hard when you’re working remotely and don’t see each other regularly. Having empowered, strong leaders who trust each other and believe in our mission and vision was critical to our success in 2020.

Thomas: I learned that it is okay to share my fears and vulnerabilities and that leading always means listening.

What work habit(s) did you start in the last year that you will continue?

Lovern: The weekly firm updates I’ve been sending have been well received and will continue post-pandemic. In addition, I’ll continue to hold more frequent check-ins with practice team members and to use Zoom technology to meet with my colleagues in all of our offices.

Popp: I usually spend quite a bit of time traveling between our various offices meeting with customers, prospects and associates. Obviously, that has not been an option for the past year. Instead, we set up a series of CEO touch base video calls with groups of 12–15 associates at a time across all our markets. The calls proved to be a nice way to hear what was on their minds, while also providing updates to our teams.

Thomas: To listen more, to read more, and to trust more. And, of course, to “Zoom” more instead of travel, which is here to stay. BUT, I do look forward to handshakes and face-to-face time with our team, clients, and friends.

What was the best thing you watched during quarantine?

Lovern: I actually haven’t watched much, but "Queen’s Gambit" is on my shortlist and one of the best books I’ve read during quarantine was "Sisters in Law."

Popp: "The Queen’s Gambit." Really good!!

Thomas: My wife and I had never binge-watched anything until 2020. "The Last Dance," "Schitt’s Creek," and our own family Christmas and holiday virtual party were all epic! Now we are hooked on "Yellowstone."

As seen in MSN and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel