Reflecting huge interest in the changing demands of CEO leadership, our 2021 global CEO study engaged 972 respondents, more than twice the number in the previous round in 2018. Going far beyond box-ticking, these CEOs provided more than 5,000 individual, qualitative reflections.
Participating CEOs represent every major industry and region, both larger and smaller firms, and every type of company ownership. They include nearly 100 female CEOs. And they range from highly tenured to freshly appointed CEOs. Together their companies earned nearly $4 trillion in revenues in 2020.
of CEOs agreed that the CEO has moved into the center of louder, more diverse and diverging voices
of CEOs reported challenges in pacing change, focusing their teams, and bringing people along with them.
Nine in ten of our respondents agreed that, in recent years, the CEO has moved into the center of louder, more diverse and diverging voices—“a tsunami of information and opinion,” as one of your peers put it. Most said their organizations faced accelerated decision-making and change, along with greater economic uncertainty. As another CEO told us: “Managing a diverse set of different and often conflicting views, often shared forcefully and to a wide audience, has become the norm.”
Challenge and disruption can be a source not just of stress but of positive energy. Many of the CEOs we spoke to said that they had found the upheavals of the past year to be a spur for learning and change. As one said: “These are exciting times … a wonderful opportunity to think afresh of a completely different way of doing business.”
Yet the collision between the COVID-19 pandemic, calls for social justice, and mounting environmental concerns has stretched CEOs immensely. These challenges come on top of megatrends that are disrupting long-established business models—the rapid advance of technology, fast-changing customer demands, the emergence of new competitors—requires CEOs to innovate at unprecedented pace and scale.
In innumerable conversations with CEOs over the past year, we have witnessed how this new reality has challenged many leaders. As one highly experienced CEO told us: “When you become a CEO, you don’t belong to yourself anymore.”
Egon Zehnder’s Chair, Jill Ader, says that many of the CEOs she counsels are wondering: “Am I enough?” Some CEOs have gone further, telling us they are disillusioned or burnt out. One of your peers forecast that “there will be significant turnover in the CEO ranks” in the months and years ahead. Our research indicates they are likely to be proven right.
The CEOs who succeed in today’s fast-shifting world will be those who summon the imagination, courage, and resolve to work on the system, rather than in it. Visionary CEOs embrace the role of architect rather than operator; in doing so, they can inspire their organizations, drive value-creating change, and find meaning in their evolving role.
Egon Zehnder’s analysis of 214 large, publicly traded companies worldwide found that half of them had appointed three or more CEOs in the decade from 2011 to 2020. What’s more, CEO departures are becoming increasingly frequent: Almost every year since 2011 has set a new record, and 2021 looks likely to break the record again.
An alarming proportion of the CEOs who leave the role do so unexpectedly. Fully 39 percent of leadership transitions in the companies we studied were emergency departures—the CEO suddenly resigned or was fired, or caught the board off guard and did not extend their contract. Sadly, a significant number of CEO departures were due to serious illness or death.
In the face of complex and rapid change, many of your CEO peers are slowing down and considering how to do things differently. As one said: “You can’t expect everything to change whilst you stay the same. Leadership takes personal development and evolution, at the heart of which is curiosity in terms of learning and listening to what is really going on in your teams and the world.”
Indeed, our most striking finding is the near-unanimous agreement among a thousand leaders that, “As CEO, I need the capacity to transform myself as well as my organization.” What’s more, nearly 80 percent of CEOs strongly agree on the importance of this “dual journey” of personal and organizational change; this number has tripled since we last asked the question. Previously, a majority of CEOs accepted this statement, with 26 percent agreeing strongly. Now, just a few years later, three times as many strongly identify with the need to work on themselves—and there is near total unanimity for all CEOs that this describes their situation.
It’s no easy matter to realize such far-reaching change: Quite apart from the natural inertia to organizational transformation, CEOs are often held back by blind spots of their own.
When asked to reflect on their “Achilles’ heels” as told by their teams, your CEO peers’ most common issue was their capacity to relate to others effectively and authentically. That, in turn, makes it harder for CEOs to inspire their people and lift the collective ambition of their organizations: 80 percent of CEOs surveyed reported challenges in pacing change, focusing their teams, and bringing people along with them.
Your CEO peers are also struggling to build cohesion with their executive teams and boards: Just 44 percent of CEOs said they were fully aligned with their teams, and even fewer said the same about their boards. As one of your fellow CEOs told us: “With massive transformation happening in current times, it is taking some time to get full alignment with all members of the executive team, as there are more discussions and opinions.”
Many CEOs are facing up to their blind spots—and finding the courage to re-examine leadership approaches that have served them well throughout their careers. Even though CEOs are near-unanimous that transformation is essential, they are at very different stages of their journeys.
“Transformation” can be a hazy concept. To clarify what it means in practice, it’s worth relating the story of “Beth,” a CEO we have coached—and the first woman to lead a major global firm in her industry. She found that the hard-driving, perfectionist leadership style that had served her so well was delivering diminishing returns; it also felt increasingly disconnected from the warm, human approach to relationships that animated her life at home.
In their journeys of transformation, some CEOs are taking a stand for a new way to do business. Emboldened by their peers, these CEOs are joining and increasingly leading a movement.
However, even as public expectations of business and CEOs are insisting on more, most of your peers continue to prioritize the financial performance of their enterprise above all else. And, despite the novel challenges of today’s environment, two-thirds of CEOs say that the metrics that steer their decisions have stayed consistent over the past several years, even if many of your peers emphasize the increasing urgency of addressing environmental and social challenges.
Whether or not a CEO is ready to make that leap—and lead their boards into a new era—more and more parties expect CEOs to architect “prosperity for the many.” It’s clear from our conversations that increasing numbers of your peers believe that should be their goal. The most forward-looking leaders are looking beyond traditional markers of performance and putting increasing focus on game-changing innovation, longer-term growth, and broader stakeholder interests.
Bolder CEOs are seeking new ways to achieve “the best of both worlds”: rather than seeing performance and transformation as trade-offs, they grasp that to perform is to transform. As One CEO put it:“It is a critical time to reflect on what the future should be and how we as leaders can contribute. We will be emerging from this debilitating pandemic—but will be going into the colossal impact climate change will invoke on the planet and people. Yet we have human ingenuity and innovation driving technology to new heights, allowing us to achieve unimaginable feats—much of which can be harnessed for the good. The question for us leaders is to figure out where and how we can contribute the most.”
What matters for leaders: CEOs speak
PeopleInspired and motivated people working in teams with great trust are the biggest asset and create magic and achieve extraordinary things. If I do not care for people all leadership is meaningless—leadership is about people. The prime objective of all human endeavor is well being of people and life in general. If we keep that bigger objective right, we will do the right things and we will have motivated and inspired people.
PurposeI don’t think we know what the next decade will demand from CEOs, but I’m hopeful that it accelerates the shift to a more purpose-driven and employee-centered way of leading.
BalanceFor me, the past year has reinforced the need to make quick decisions without becoming overbearing. It has brought the church back to the center of the village on what is important and what is not. It has stressed the need to be very aligned between personal and professional life in order to be professionally effective.