CEO Benchmarking Report 2021
160 CEOs reveal their top concerns and priorities in a post-COVID remote world. Find out how you can help them build dream teams that get along and get the job done in the year to come.
Understanding the future of leadership, teaming, remote work, and strategy
COVID-19 has radically altered the consulting landscape. Airports are a distant memory, instead replaced by dining tables and breakfast nooks. Consultants who once stressed over delayed flights are now stressing over glitchy meeting technology. Client on-sites aren’t happening, because clients aren’t on site at all. Virtual is the name of the game—and yet, consulting over Zoom calls and email feels hardly as personable.
Months into the pandemic, you may have adapted to some of these changes. But 2021 brings brand-new challenges—for you, your firm, and most critically, your clients. How are CEOs feeling about their org’s health? How’s senior leadership holding up? Is the team prepared for the work ahead? What kind of guidance and help are they looking for?
To answer these questions, The Predictive Index surveyed 160 CEOs in September 2020 about their top priorities and concerns. Their answers provide a window into the minds of executive leaders during one of the most trying times in recent history. Responses revealed a common thread: Executive and critical teams are struggling to get along and deliver on strategy.
As CEOs grapple with both the needs of their business and the needs of their people, they’ll be in need of guidance. The stakes are high, there’s work to do, and teams must accomplish more with less. Consultants who can thread this needle and solve critical team issues will have a huge competitive advantage compared to those who can’t. And this starts with helping clients build dream teams that get the work done—no matter what the future holds.
After reading this report, you’ll understand what’s stressing CEOs—and why team cohesion is a top priority.
2021 is a whole new ballgame for your clients and their teams. The findings in this report will open your eyes to the unique challenges CEOs are facing in a COVID world. You’ll discover what’s fracturing senior leadership—and why team cohesion is critical to success. You’ll also learn how to help your clients build dream teams that work like magic—using talent optimization.
Team stress and the need for cohesion
“The coronavirus has put an unprecedented strain on executives and their people. Teams that overcome the stress and grow closer in spite of it will be all the stronger.”
– Allison Siminovsky, Ph.D. Director of People Science at The Predictive Index
Executives are leading all-new teams.
69% of companies restructured their teams during the pandemic.
While COVID-19 has radically altered life at home, it’s also forced companies to make tough decisions about their workforce and teams. The study began by asking CEOs to what degree the pandemic has forced their business to restructure. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said their company suffered layoffs or furloughs since March 2020. Of the organizations that restructured, 28% let go at least one-fourth of the company.
What percentage of your company’s employees have been laid off or furloughed since March 2020?
It’s no surprise employee productivity is a major concern for CEOs. Layoffs bring feelings of anxiety and guilt for employees who remain. Also, restructuring often means new teams within your client organizations—and thus, new people problems to help them solve.
Remote work is here to stay.
97% of CEOs are allowing some degree of remote work moving forward.
Teams aren’t just new—they’re virtual. And for most CEOs, it’s clear there’s no turning back. When asked what their plans are for remote work moving forward, 76% of CEOs said they’ll allow remote work on a full-time basis “for all or most employees.” An overwhelming 97% of companies will allow remote work in some form moving forward.
Moving forward, we plan on allowing remote work:
Remote work brings new challenges for clients—and new opportunities for you. Consider how remote work impacts the way teams communicate and collaborate, then tailor your recommendations to fit these needs. In doing so, you’ll demonstrate not just expertise, but value.
CEOs’ No. 1 challenge is helping their remote teams work well together.
51% of CEOs cited “working well remotely” as a top hurdle.
Companies may be committed to remote work, but that doesn’t mean the shift has been easy. The study asked CEOs to list their three biggest challenges in this new normal. More than half of the respondents selected Working well remotely. It was the most popular response by a wide margin.
The second-most popular response was Finding the right talent (25%). Compared to the 2019 CEO Benchmarking Report, that’s a decrease of 12%.
As CEO, which of the following are your biggest challenges?
Last year, finding the right talent was the No. 1 CEO challenge. But with COVID-19 and the economic downturn, CEOs have had to cut costs, reduce spending, and slow or freeze hiring. When working with clients, focus on making the most of the people they have.
CEOs are most concerned about employee productivity.
56% of CEOs say employee performance is of high concern.
The study continued by asking CEOs what’s keeping them up at night. In the 2019 CEO Benchmarking Report, the top answer among respondents was Employee performance and productivity. Thirty-six percent stated it was of high concern.
That sentiment skyrocketed in 2020—56% of CEOs now say employee performance is a top concern. This worry comes amid the brand-new challenge of COVID-19. Forty-eight percent of CEOs say they’ve lost sleep over how the virus is impacting their business. They’re also worried about Customer satisfaction, which saw an 8% increase from 2019.
Which of the following are of high concern to you?
As municipalities struggle to rein in the virus, CEOs are stressing over their employees and customers. COVID-19 has made it difficult to earn and keep new business. To help your clients build momentum, first ensure their teams are engaged and motivated to hit their goals.
Senior leaders are struggling with team cohesion.
Since the pandemic began, fewer CEOs believe their teams have strong cohesion.
CEOs were presented with the following statement and asked to respond via a 5-point Likert scale (1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neither agree nor disagree, 4=agree, 5= strongly agree): My team has strong cohesion. Researchers had them give two answers: one for how they were feeling at the time of the study (September 2020) and another for how they felt back in March 2020.
As of September, 78% of CEOs believed their executive team had strong cohesion. That’s a 10% decrease from March 2020. And the difference was even starker among CEOs who “strongly agreed” with the statement: Only 41% strongly agreed, down 17% from March.
My team has strong cohesion.
Remote work is amplifying the lack of cohesion.
The closer organizations are to being fully remote, the more significant their cohesion issues.
Researchers also wanted to better understand how remote work has impacted the effectiveness of executive teams. First, researchers asked CEOs whether at least 90% of their employees were currently working remotely full-time. Then, they asked a series of questions related to team performance.
The findings stood out immediately: As shown in the table below, CEOs whose operations are almost entirely remote tend to experience greater team struggles than CEOs with less-distributed teams.
Do you agree with the following statement?
As clients adjust to the world of Zoom and Slack, be their virtual liaison. Be receptive to their technical needs, and accommodate them as best you can. Patience and empathy will go a long way toward building trust within client teams—and achieving greater outcomes.
CEOs lack confidence in their remote teams.
CEOs that lead remote teams are more likely to doubt the team’s ability to hit strategic goals.
As remote work disrupts the way teams work, it’s also eroding the confidence CEOs have in their teams to get that work done. Researchers asked CEOs how confident they are in their executive team’s ability to deliver on short- and long-term strategic goals. As shown below, CEOs that lead almost entirely remote teams are more likely to doubt their team’s ability than CEOs with less-distributed teams.
Do you agree with the following statement?
Team conflict stems from people problems.
36% of CEOs say conflict ties back to interpersonal struggles.
When cohesion is an issue, conflict typically isn’t far behind. Researchers asked CEOs that have experienced team conflict to describe what it most often relates to. While a portion of CEOs tied conflict to competing goals or contrasting views of how work gets done, the largest proportion—36%—said conflict ties back to interpersonal struggles.
When my team faces conflict, it is most often related to:
When there’s infighting within teams, the most common causes aren’t business issues, but people problems. To help your clients resolve conflict, it helps to take a people-first approach.
CEOs are spending precious time mediating people issues.
58% of CEOs admit they mediate interpersonal conflict at least monthly.
These team cohesion issues aren’t just prevalent; for many CEOs, they’re exhausting. Researchers provided CEOs the following statement and asked them to respond via a 5-point Likert scale (1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neither agree nor disagree, 4=agree, 5= strongly agree): I mediate interpersonal conflict among team members at least once a month. Fifty-eight percent of respondents either “agreed” or “strongly agreed.”
I mediate interpersonal conflict among team members at least once a month.
Critical team issues require critical attention—but CEOs are busy, especially amid a pandemic. Take the opportunity to address these people issues and try to broker lasting solutions. Doing so will free up clients’ time and pay dividends for their business.
Executive strategy and the work to be done
“COVID forced organizations to learn and adapt. For 2021, CEOs must build on those learnings—and ensure their teams are equipped for the work ahead.”
– Mike Zani, CEO at The Predictive Index
Most CEOs overhauled their business strategy in 2020.
96% of CEOs shifted strategic direction in some way since COVID-19.
CEOs have had to navigate entirely new business circumstances due to the pandemic. From supply chain disruptions to evolved buyer cycles, COVID-19 didn’t just alter the landscape; it redefined it. And CEOs adapted.
The study asked CEOs to answer the following: To what extent has the strategic direction of your company shifted since March 2020? A whopping 96% of respondents said they changed direction due to the pandemic, with 50% indicating their strategy shifted to a “great” extent.
To what extent has the strategic direction of your company shifted since March 2020?
CEOs are laser-focused on strategy development.
53% of CEOs say strategy development is their No. 1 priority.
Companies have generally stabilized since the onset of the pandemic. But just because the crisis has eased, that doesn’t mean the hard work stops. When asked what is their No. 1 priority moving forward, 53% of CEOs said Strategy development, an increase of 14% from the 2019 CEO Benchmarking Report. Another 20% of CEOs said Operational execution was their top priority—a sign that teams are prioritizing the quality and efficiency of existing teams and offerings. Interestingly, only 17% of CEOs said Talent strategy—a 13% decline from 2019.
As a leader, you have many important areas of focus. Which of the following is your #1 priority?
As organizations look to bounce back from 2020, many CEOs have ambitious goals. While achieving them requires a strong business strategy, your clients can’t afford to neglect talent strategy. Businesses don’t run themselves; people do. And that means helping clients build a talent strategy that prepares their employees for the work ahead.
Add the leading talent optimization platform to your consulting toolbox.
Employees are less clear on strategy.
Fewer CEOs believe their employees understand the mission and strategy now than before the pandemic.
As CEOs make critical decisions about the future of their business, the shift in strategy hasn’t been without bumps in the road.
Respondents were presented with the following statement and asked to respond via a 5-point Likert scale (1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neither agree nor disagree, 4=agree, 5= strongly agree): Employees across the company clearly understand the company’s mission and strategy. Researchers asked CEOs to answer twice: once for how they’re feeling now (September 2020) and again for how they felt back in March 2020.
As of September, 83% of CEOs said their employees are clear on the strategy. That’s a 4% decline since March—and an indication there’s growing confusion among employees about the mission at hand.
Employees across the company clearly understand the company’s mission and strategy.
When COVID set in, CEOs and their teams had to move quickly to adapt. When senior leadership is making major decisions at lightning speed, it’s easy for middle managers to lose clarity—especially in a remote environment. To help client organizations thrive in 2021, make sure everyone at the top is aligned on strategy—and communicating it clearly.
Lack of strategic clarity runs deep within the organization.
Less than 80% of CEOs believe in their employees’ ability to communicate the strategy to others.
Researchers had CEOs answer another statement, again asking them to respond via a 5-point Likert scale (1=strongly disagree, 2=disagree, 3=neither agree nor disagree, 4=agree, 5= strongly agree): Employees across the company are able to effectively communicate the company’s mission and strategy to others. Only 79% of CEOs agreed with the statement, down 4% from March.
Employees across the company are able to effectively communicate the company’s mission and strategy to others.
Executing strategy can often feel like a game of telephone: If middle managers aren’t clear on the direction up top, that confusion will only amplify further down the org. More than ever, senior leaders need a talent strategy that puts complex business needs in clear people terms.
The critical opportunity for consultants
Most CEOs need a consultant’s help with talent optimization.
said they needed outside help with both business and talent strategies in the past six months.
Researchers asked CEOs to what extent they’ve needed external help with their business and talent strategies in the past six months. The trends were clear on both sides of the strategic fence: Ninety-four percent of CEOs said they needed help with business strategy, and 91% with talent strategy.
While these alone are critical findings, they lead to something even more striking: Ninety-one percent of CEOs indicated they needed help with both business and talent strategies. Talent optimization hinges on aligning both sides of the equation—so the fact CEOs are struggling with both shows how valuable a consultant’s perspective can be.
Talent strategy is a management consultant’s competitive advantage.
91% of CEOs say they’d value a management consultant’s ability to develop a talent strategy.
When asked whether they’d value a general management consultant’s ability to develop a talent strategy in addition to business strategy recommendations, an overwhelming 91% of CEOs surveyed said “yes.”
If you’re thinking of hiring a general management consultant, would you value their ability to develop a talent strategy in addition to business strategy recommendations?
Management consultants often focus on the operational side of strategy, helping clients improve efficiencies, cut costs, and maximize profits. But the reality is that CEOs also value their expertise when it comes to talent strategy and building effective teams. After all, profitability depends on productivity—and that hinges on people.
More CEOs are investing in software-led consulting.
54% of CEOs have used software tools for guidance with business strategy.
Next, researchers wanted to learn how CEOs have leveraged consultants in the past. When asked how they’ve engaged with consultants for help with business strategy, 54% of CEOs said Purchasing a new software or system. That’s an eye-popping 17% increase from the 2019 CEO Benchmarking Report. By contrast, both Adopting a new process and Hiring a human resources consultant fell in popularity among respondents.
Historically, in what areas have you used consultants for help with business strategy and execution? Select all that apply.
CEOs need software for both business and talent strategy.
49% of CEOs have used software solutions for help with talent strategy.
Likewise, researchers asked CEOs how they’ve engaged with consultants for help with talent strategy. Forty-nine percent of CEOs said Purchasing a new software or system—up 19% from 2019. Adopting a new process remained flat in popularity, while Hiring a human resources consultant declined by 4%.
Historically, in what areas have you used consultants for help with talent strategy and execution? Select all that apply.
At a time when engagements are virtual, having the right consulting software isn’t just important—it’s essential. And based on these findings, CEOs are showing an interest in these tools, too. Need more proof? A whopping 79% of CEOs indicated they’ve used consulting software for help with business strategy, talent strategy, or both.
CEOs vastly prefer personalized solutions.
85% of CEOs favor a consultant who offers customized engagements.
CEOs don’t value just any consulting solution. They want something that’s tailored to the needs of their business. When asked whether they’re more likely to hire a consultant who implements an off-the-shelf process or system, versus one who offers customized engagements, 85% of CEOs selected the latter.
That doesn’t mean you have to start engagements from scratch. By adopting a discipline like talent optimization, you can build off a proven framework, customizing your recommendations based on the needs of your clients.
Which of the following options would you be most likely to select when you need help with business strategy or talent strategy in the future?
Building dream teams with talent optimization
“Senior leadership should feel confident it has the right teams to execute strategy. With talent optimization, the path to designing those dream teams is clearer than ever.”
– Daniel Muzquiz, President at The Predictive Index
Unlock the magic of dream teams.
It’s no secret that people are pivotal to business success. In the 2020 State of Talent Optimization Report, researchers uncovered the positive results businesses achieve when they align their business strategy with a matching talent strategy.
That’s talent optimization: a powerful discipline that helps leaders put people in the right places, at the right times, for the right business needs. It relies on objective people data, such as cognitive ability and behavioral fit. By leveraging these data points, leaders can build dream teams that are cohesive, trusting, and intentionally designed to tackle the work at hand.
Learn more about talent optimization, and the dream teams it helps build, below.
Senior leaders want to improve people relationships.
of CEOs say their leadership teams promote a culture of long-term affiliation.
Most executive teams recognize the need for talent optimization, even if they don’t know it by name. Researchers asked CEOs to answer the following: Which of the following best describes the culture of your current executive team? Sixty-six percent of CEOs selected: Enhancing the quality of working relationships, robust development and mentorship opportunities, and long-term affiliation.
Talent optimization focuses on a business’s most expensive and powerful asset—people. And CEOs recognize that power, too. Not only do they need help with talent optimization; they’re actively committed to it as part of their long-term culture.
Designing dream teams, made easy.
Between navigating the pandemic, the economy, and a remote future, CEOs have critical business problems to solve. But their people issues aren’t going away—and the need for cohesion can’t be overstated.
With the help of PI’s talent optimization platform, you can help your clients turn any team into a dream team. The Predictive Index platform is equipped with science-backed recommendations to power your engagements—and help senior leaders and critical teams build cohesion and reduce conflict.
This starts with helping your clients uncover their unique Team Type. This designation helps clients better understand the behavioral makeup of their team. For example, one executive team may discover it’s a Cultivating Team. These teams strive for consensus, prioritize group decision-making, and put a premium on interpersonal relationships.
Through this revealing process, your clients and their teams will discover their natural superpowers, as well as any caution areas. They’ll also learn how these strengths and weaknesses map back to the business strategy. Take the Cultivating Team from before: The team may value consensus, but if the strategy requires quick decision-making, consensus won’t always be possible.
By understanding how team behaviors impact the work to be done, clients can gain renewed clarity and confidence about the road ahead—and rekindle the magic of a true dream team.
Conclusion: Dream teams get the work done—so clients can focus on strategy.
COVID-19 has made it more difficult to earn and keep new business. More than ever, CEOs are looking to retain the customers they have while also getting the most out of the people they have.
To stay afloat, 69% of companies restructured their teams since March 2020. Many others were forced into remote work. Major changes like these pile stress on even the strongest of teams—especially when compounded by personal worries and challenges.
Despite the interpersonal disconnect and strain most teams are facing right now—whether remote or otherwise—the majority of CEOs are committed to making remote work a success. Ninety-seven percent plan to allow remote work beyond the pandemic. They understand that the future of work has changed forever, and they know they must adapt to remain competitive.
Yet good intentions aren’t enough to get stuck teams unstuck. To improve team collaboration, communication, and cohesion in a meaningful way, CEOs must take a new approach to talent strategy: one that requires understanding themselves, their teams, and their strategy—together. And they need your help to make this dream a reality.
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This report was developed with scientific rigor.
Good surveys begin with identifying the population of interest. Because we wanted to explore the practices of people who directly set and influence business and talent strategies, we partnered with Qualtrics, an organization that specializes in surveying executive audiences. The research sample was restricted to 160 chief executive officers, presidents, and chairpeople at U.S. companies with 25-1,000 employees.
We developed the survey questions according to best practices in survey research, ensuring they were clear, concise, and understandable by people with a variety of backgrounds. Questions had response formats designed to balance the richness of data to be collected with the ease of responding. The topics were selected based on a set of research questions identified by subject matter experts as being relevant to emerging trends in executive leadership and strategic planning since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Together, all of this encouraged participant engagement and high-quality responses while collecting in-depth information about team cohesion and performance.