Top CEO Challenges for 2021: How Innovative Leaders Are Preparing

September 11, 2020

Case categories include: Founder’s Insights   Leadership   Strategy & Planning   

Top CEO Challenges for 2021

By Paul Witkay, Founder & CEO, Alliance of Chief Executives

Fueled by the disruptive influence of COVID-19, 2020 proved to be a remarkable year. Nearly every industry across the globe felt the effects. Supply chain disruptions, workplace relocations, and day-to-day health safety modifications were just some of the wide-ranging changes that businesses dealt with. And, as we inch through 2021, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these trials aren’t leaving anytime soon.

In fact, responding to the current pandemic and preparing our organizations for the future are the foremost challenges for the upcoming year. It’s important for leaders to anticipate 2021’s obstacles in order to make informed preparations now—whether that means pivoting your business focus, changing daily operations or making structural accommodations for the future.

By working with so many CEOs within our diverse Alliance community, I’ve seen how some of today’s innovative leaders are already anticipating the upcoming challenges and opportunities. Here are a few thoughts to help us plan how to take decisive, positive actions in 2021—despite the current unpredictability.

Uncertainty Is Shaping the Top CEO Challenges of 2021

The largest single obstacle that I see facing business leaders in the year ahead is simply uncertainty. When it seems that the market is constantly in flux with varying economic outlooks and surprise complications arising on a regular basis, it can be very challenging for leaders to stay ahead of the curve. The pandemic is affecting each industry, company, and individual in a unique manner—and many continue to feel uneasy about what’s next.

During the first weeks of sheltering-in-place, I heard many CEOs discuss how effectively and quickly their employees were able to adapt to working from home—and often with increased productivity. However, now that the virus has lingered for months, it appears that the initial adrenaline rush of the first months has worn off, and productivity, fatigue and employee morale have become issues.

Most leaders agree that we have not yet reached the “new normal.” As you see below, regular surveys of Alliance CEOs since mid-March have continually extended the projected return to “somewhat normal” well into 2021.

COVID-19 Business Projections by Top CEOs
Alliance of CEOs, August 2020

Top CEO Challenges for 2021

How Innovative CEOs Are Adapting for a Successful New Year

From working with members within the Alliance of CEOs, I’ve had the privilege of engaging with different leaders who have effectively adapted their operations to meet the top CEO challenges posed by COVID-19. There are two primary approaches as we look ahead, with all the challenges and opportunities that it will bring.

1. Deepen Your Understanding of Customers’ Needs

During periods of unprecedented change, it’s essential that leaders seek to deeply understand how these changes are impacting their customers. After all, amidst all of the pandemic-induced transformation, your customers’ needs and priorities have most likely shifted as well. Understanding their new reality can result in opportunities to develop better customer experiences and create even greater value.

For instance, one CEO’s company had developed leading-edge software that greatly improved the patient experience when visiting medical clinics, while reducing administrative burdens for the doctors. When COVID-19 hit, patients were no longer comfortable going to clinics and the CEO saw the need to provide clients with the ability to continue delivering healthcare to their patients in their homes. He quickly and decisively pivoted his company toward telemedicine—a service that is much more in demand these days. And, the market opportunity is even bigger and more exciting than before!

Other companies can take a similar approach of examining customer behavior and thinking critically about how to meet their needs. With these considerations, you may find yourself able to more effectively adjust business plans and act decisively, especially when it comes to making longer-term plans.

2. Optimize Operations for Increased Flexibility and Less Risk

The global reach of the coronavirus has had an incredibly disruptive effect on traditional modes of operation. Countless supply chains and manufacturing lines have become interrupted. And, for many of us, in-person meetings have become impossible. To face these complications, rebuilding is a necessity. This affords an opportunity for your enterprise to be more flexible and agile than ever before.

Even before COVID-19, our society was on track for a profound digital transformation and this has only been made more acute by the global pandemic. Zoom meetings are the new norm and more localized production has become an increasingly reliable option for many companies. Entire approaches to distribution, sales, and marketing have even been altered by the outbreak. As a result, you should explore how to best design your business and prepare your team to succeed in the new landscape.

This switch can take many forms. For example, some footwear companies have moved away from traditional manufacturing in outsourced factories to more localized facilities that use 3D printing. As a result, they have been able to eliminate expensive tooling costs and enable quicker product turnaround time. 

In other cases, companies have actually discovered that their employees work more effectively in remote environments. This has inspired them to integrate remote work into their company structure, altering their perception of how they imagine business should be done in a post-coronavirus world. Many companies have learned the new ways of working have resulted in not only significantly lower travel-related expenses, but more efficient ways to build and maintain relationships with their customers and supply chain partners.

As CEOs, we need to always be looking for the next great opportunity—whether it is new markets or new approaches to manufacturing or distribution. And, as we move through 2021, innovation needs to be prioritized to thrive in our “new normal.” Great ideas and opportunities can come from anyone inside or outside of your organization, from the CEO and leadership team, to each employee, supplier and vendor. Be sure to keep your ears and eyes open.

Find Leadership Support Amidst Uncertainty

When thinking about the top CEO challenges that 2021 is bound to bring, the best way I can think to prepare is to be as informed as possible in the present. Though it’s true that we live in a time filled with doubt and social distancing, support isn’t impossible to find. As the founder & CEO of the Alliance of CEOs, I have been able to develop deep relationships with highly intelligent leaders who have sparked innovative ideas and caused me to reconsider how to do business—and that extends to how we’ve all helped each other during these trying times.

As we all plan on how to best tackle the obstacles of tomorrow, the input of those we trust and respect becomes invaluable. While we can’t predict the future, we can engage with other CEOs who bring a wider range of fresh perspectives and enable us to move more quickly and decisively to take advantage of new opportunities.

A new year always creates new challenges. To help find the support you need to face the top CEO challenges of 2021, contact the Alliance of CEOs today.