What Major Decisions Are CEOs Making in 2021?

What Major Decisions Are CEOs Making in 2019?

By Kristen McAlister, President of Cerius Executives

There’s a common saying among CEOs and business owners: “It’s lonely at the top.” And following a year of tremendous business change, that feeling has only gotten stronger.

When it’s time for a tough decision, either you feel as though you’re the only person going through the troubling situation, or there’s no one with whom you can talk it through.

It’s typical for CEOs and business owners to lie awake at night thinking, “I am going through this alone.” But hearing someone say this is typical doesn’t always help. Sometimes knowing others are in the same boat, dealing with the same tough decisions, does.

At Cerius, we hear this quite a bit from CEOs and business owners in our network. Based on our interactions and experiences, we can provide a number of insights and anecdotes that indicate the leading edge of trend lines, based on the top concerns we hear in conversations, but it’s always great to find empirical data that validates what we see and hear every day as we speak with small and midsized business leaders.

Top-Requested Independent Executive Positions: A Clue to Challenges

In the past, we’ve published a list of our top requested independent executive positions. This is generally a good indicator of where companies are most challenged in terms of talent. However, in the past 18 months, this list has shifted dramatically due to the ongoing pandemic. Our new Top Three independent executive requests are now:

  • CFO—finance
  • COO—operations
  • Human Resources/Talent Acquisition

Our own internal findings line up with insights from Vistage International, a peer-to-peer CEO organization that recently published a timely report: Decision Factors 2020: Climb to Recovery for CEOs. In the report, Vistage identified the top four areas of business optimization for CEOs as they seek to rebuild: talent, customers, operations and financials. Here are a few insights for CEOs from the Vistage report:

Four Focus Areas for CEOs in 2021

1. Talent: Maintain workforce engagement.

To thrive in the new reality, CEOs need to engage their workforce starting with a clearly communicated vision, powered by the right culture and team to achieve that vision. In a changing workplace with more distributed employees, leaders need to work hard to reimagine, refine and nurture the company’s culture. They also need to prioritize diversity and inclusion as a critical part of their strategy.

As leaders rebuild their business to maximize recovery, another critical component is ensuring the right team is in place. In order to position for growth, companies need to reignite the talent war, seeking out the A-players and retaining high-performers who are critical to achieving the company’s vision. Having a strong HR leader is key to achieving these goals—and CEOs may need to bolster or supplement their HR leadership to avoid missing valuable opportunities.

2. Customers: Adapt to new buying behaviors.

Regardless of your industry, one thing is certain—your buyer behaviors have changed. With economic instability and high uncertainty, buyers are now more cautious and risk averse. The sales cycle is longer and involves more people. And finance is exerting stronger influence on purchasing decisions. As companies climb back to recovery, they need to adapt to the new reality of customer engagement.

Solving the puzzle involves creativity, courage and the commitment to change. According to the Vistage report, CEOs need to take the lead to instigate change. You need to get closer to your most important customers, get more strategic in targeting competitive accounts, revamp your marketing messages, and sharpen your internal sales skills and processes. You may need to strengthen your Marketing and Sales leadership to face the new market realities.

3. Operations: Reimagine the workplace.

Right now, some organizations are welcoming employees back to a physical workplace, while others are extending their work-from-home policies indefinitely. Whatever side of the coin your company is on, you need to adapt and adjust to the new reality.

If workers are back to physical offices, CEOs need to prioritize their health and safety—outlining policies and providing adequate training to ensure those policies are followed. You may also need to reconfigure your physical workspaces to accommodate employees and their varying thresholds of feeling safe and comfortable within the office.

If companies are continuing remote work, CEOs should revisit their technical capabilities, provide employees with the right hardware and collaboration tools to maintain critical productivity. More importantly, CEOs need to ensure cybersecurity—to guard against people becoming the weakest link.

4. Financials: Use strategic priorities to drive scenario planning.

Managing cash is always important, but especially during uncertain times. To navigate the rapidly changing environment, CEOs can use scenario planning to gain clarity for short-term decisions and plan ahead for “what if” situations. For example, if sales declines by 20% in one month, a CEO’s scenario plan could recommend a furlough of 30% of employees.

This scenario planning should always follow strategic priorities. To align the two, CEOs should decide what’s most important (e.g., avoid debt, align talent), determine what’s out of your control, establish precise objectives, communicate the strategy, and hold people accountable to results.

In all four areas, CEOs need to be strong leaders and also bring in supporting leaders, as needed, to close gaps and ensure the recovery-and-rebuild mission is as solid as possible.

*This blog was originally published in 2019 and updated January 2021.

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