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Top Challenges Facing CEOs in 2021 and How to Tackle Them

Author: Future Proof Advisors

The Six Questions CEOs Should Ask Themselves in 2021 (And How We’d Approach Them)

Even with 2020 behind us and vaccines rolling out across the country, businesses will continue to face challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cultural and economic impact of last year will undoubtedly have a ripple effect for years to come. Moreover, in some industries, there have been permanent shifts in employee work styles and consumer purchasing behaviors which will need to be addressed. While we believe that no two businesses are exactly the same, many of our members in the C-Suite are facing similar challenges this year. Here are six key questions we have been hearing and thinking about, and how we would begin to tackle them.

1. How can I regroup after experiencing such major and unexpected shifts?

One of the biggest lessons that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic is how crucial it is for businesses to stay adaptable. Entire operations were altered due to the global shutdown, forcing companies to discover how to find new success in this changing landscape, often adopting tools and technologies to accomplish the task. As we have seen over the last year, businesses that refuse to be flexible will not survive, and more importantly, disruption has always been the birthplace of innovation.

During the third quarter of 2020, more than 1.5 million new-business applications were filed in the United States, nearly double from the same time in 2019. Increased competition and new thinking are coming. It may sound counterintuitive, but by focusing less on your own business and more on the landscape and innovation, you will find that you can unlock solutions you weren’t able to see before. Consider Magic Spoon, a direct-to-consumer cereal startup that was able to grow their business significantly during the pandemic because of its online-only presence. While online shopping wasn’t new, food and beverage was one industry that was slow to make the jump—therefore, brands that were ahead of the curve and had already taken the step to focus solely on e-commerce, such as Magic Spoon, did not experience the same widespread supply chain disruption as those reliant on grocery stores and at-shelf purchase profits when the pandemic hit.

When you alter your thinking in an outwardly focused way, your competitors become a kind of ally—pushing you to take on more rapid challenges and become the best you can be. Don’t be afraid to embrace inevitable changes and lean into uncertainty—this mindset will help your business grow and thrive in the long run.

2. How can I kick-start growth post-pandemic?

2020 was a tough financial year for most companies, with many opting to dip into their reserves or take out unexpected loans in addition to their PPP to weather the storm. The pandemic destroyed the illusion of stability that many businesses had grown accustomed to, and CEOs in 2021 will be attempting to recover from this. A PwC survey showed that 76% of CEOs believe global economic growth will improve in 2021. However, the path forward isn’t just about recovering from 2020. Instead of focusing on “getting back to normal,” it’s time to find the next normal, which is continuously evolving.

Look to the businesses that flourished during the pandemic for inspiration. Online solutions and e-commerce saw a major boom in 2020 as a result of new limitations, because these companies were thinking ahead. Embracing digital transformation can be a key first step toward jump-starting growth. Where does your organization see things heading next? What innovations and technological advancements can you leverage to remain competitive and relevant in this new ecosystem? Your team can help you answer these questions with their observations and insights, too. Devise a task force among your key employees, and galvanize them around the common goal of strategic growth. This can and should be fun and exciting for your team, so get creative about developing incentives such as revenue sharing arrangements for task force members, or spot bonuses for great ideas. When you put your heads together to think about what could be, and not just what is, you can discover truly visionary ways forward.

3. How can I re-engage my existing customers?

Your organization allocated funds differently last year; we all did. Your customers’ habits have changed also. People are spending less and in different categories now that they are more acutely aware of how quickly economic stability can be lost. Brand loyalty was also largely moved to the back-burner during shortages, as customers had no choice but to buy the products that were available to them. Spending will slowly recover as people begin to feel more comfortable leaving their homes. For some businesses, you may not even know what is motivating your customers now or what they really need. Capturing customer feedback can be a valuable first step to determining your target’s purchasing behaviors. Develop a regular cadence of customer surveys and tangible rewards for customers providing feedback. Employ tools like social listening to better understand chatter. Scheduling one-on-one interviews with key clientele can also help you understand how things may have changed for them since you’ve last touched base. By listening to your customers with the same intent that you listened to your employees, you remind them how valuable they are while getting to know them all over again.

4. How do I continue to build trust with my employees and customers?

Coming out of the pandemic, employees and customers may be feeling a bit cynical. Though many CEOs rose to the challenge in 2020 and kept their teams as safe as possible, many others lost trust score points, and overall CEO perception took a dip. The idea of trust is crucial for an organization’s success isn’t new; however, companies need to stay cutting edge to future-proof their operations and retain the loyalty they’ve earned.

Although tangible efforts like more cautious spending of marketing dollars are great places to start, the best way to increase employee and customer confidence in your business is to communicate and over-communicate. Don’t pretend everything is normal when it isn’t—instead, set the example by frequently soliciting feedback from employees about your recent leadership and management, and regularly check in with customers, remaining adaptable when they share areas they feel could be improved. When your stakeholders know that you care and you want their feedback, they will feel more comfortable giving you the most valuable and actionable advice they have to offer.

5. Should I transition to a permanently remote workforce?

The instant shift to remote workplaces created a completely new set of hurdles

for CEOs and business leaders. Keeping employees happy, motivated, engaged, and productive while managing stress levels has also remained tricky to balance. Worse, having to facilitate all communication through a computer screen can foster further disconnection and isolation. Based on current trends, it appears likely that at least part-time remote work will become a permanent fixture at your organization. Therefore, it’s necessary to adapt the culture and communication to ensure continued success.

As CEO, re-evaluating your company’s culture post-pandemic is the first key step towards determining how, and to what extent, remote work and virtual collaboration can fit into that equation. Is your company like Amazon, in which in-person work is a core tenet of your culture and operations and will return when it is possible to do so safely? Or will you take the Dropbox approach and embrace a “virtual first” culture? It is your job to consider what is right for both your employees and your business as a whole when these decisions are made—this is not the same world it was in 2019, and your company values should evolve to reflect that. Make it collaborative by getting your team’s opinion on returning to the office, and consider potential areas for compromise that still align with your company’s objectives. Many employees have gotten used to the flexibility that remote work brings and may be hesitant to go back to their commute and the office. Other employees may be concerned about heading back too soon due to safety, or have anxiety around being passed over for promotions if they are working from home and others are not.

6. How do I embrace digital transformation to identify and hire new talent?

Finding candidates with the right qualifications is crucial to the success of any business and can prove difficult for leaders in most industries. Today, technology and compliance needs along with digital acceleration bring new challenges. As many internal responsibilities have shifted, and new ones are constantly being created, there is a lack of support for sourcing top talent. This is largely due to the digital skills gap. Organizations are now more reliant on technology to improve the customer experience, requiring a larger focus on upskilling the workforce. Equipping workers with these opportunities allows businesses to meet customer expectations. Plus, there is a way to harness recent economic changes to work in your favor. For example, not every employee needs to be full-time, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. There are a wide variety of specialized freelancers out there, and the world’s ever-advancing technological landscape makes it easier than ever to find them (look to sites like UpWork and Fiverr to get started). Recruiting the right people to come in and help for limited hours on specialized projects can widen your talent pool and even give you a better return on your investment.

The Bottom Line

This list of challenges for leaders is far from exhaustive. There is also progress to be made in macro areas like diversity and inclusion and environmental sustainability. We are firm believers that the unprecedented changes and challenges of 2020 showed the world a new way of working, which created opportunities for evolution and growth. Our task for 2021 and beyond is to take what we’ve learned and use that insight to create new pathways to real innovation that will improve the future, for all.

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