5 minute read 3 Aug. 2020
Portrait of modern businesswoman standing in her office

How to reshape the C-suite for a better working world

By John de Yonge

EY Global Markets EYQ Global Insights Director

Analyst and thought leader focused on disruption, sustainability and megatrends. Proponent of innovation for meeting global resource challenges. Skier. Fly-fisher. Tae kwon do black belt.

5 minute read 3 Aug. 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the C-suite’s responsibilities. Here’s how senior leaders can navigate a changing world.

Three questions to ask
  • What new C-suite capabilities must be acquired to ensure growth and drive long-term value beyond the pandemic?
  • Does the size, structure and governance of your C-level team support the agile decision-making needed to respond to dislocations stemming from the pandemic?
  • How will we embrace the demands of a broader set of stakeholders to have visibility and input into corporate decision-making?

For chief operating officers, business is no longer usual. Chief marketing officers saw consumer habits flip, virtually overnight. Chief revenue officers are trying to mitigate risk and build trust in a highly volatile environment. Chief executive officers are juggling business survival with employee safety, and unremitting pressure from investors and other stakeholders. And most are doing it in front of laptops, using video conferencing.

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the world in ways big and small, from back offices to boardrooms, across industries and geographies. Yet C-suites are not only working differently – the very nature of their roles has changed. Traditional, predictable responsibilities have been subsumed by new demands amid shifts in how teams work, what customers want, and dramatic changes in the outlook of sectors and industries.

At the same time, all of the other urgent global challenges that were increasingly preoccupying leaders before the COVID-19 pandemic – such as the climate emergency, widening income inequality and job displacement – remain. In fact, many have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has revealed the fragility of the global economy and the precariousness of many livelihoods.

Addressing major challenges – internally and externally – is a core responsibility of senior leaders. Yet the nature and sheer scale of the challenges faced today is different, particularly because it places new, unfamiliar demands on traditional roles. How should leaders adjust? And how can C-suites collectively both weather the COVID-19 storm and seize the opportunity to reframe the future of their organizations?

“There’s been a lot of talk about purpose,” Barclays Bank Group Chairman Nigel Higgins said in a recent EY webcast, “and now is the moment for businesses to show who actually means it.”

For individual leaders within the C-suite, there are a series of actions each can pursue. We’ve identified what’s required now, next, and beyond the pandemic for the chief information officer, the chief marketing officer, chief operating officer, chief revenue officer and chief supply chain officer.

There’s been a lot of talk about purpose, and now is the moment for businesses to show who actually means it.
Nigel Higgins
Group Chairman, Barclays

A C-suite for a post-pandemic world

Rapid C-suite change was well under way before the pandemic. The 2019 EY CEO Imperative Study found only a third of Forbes 2000 CEOs, their board members and institutional investors surveyed would say the current C-suite model is very well-suited to the challenges and opportunities of the next decade.

Nearly all the CEOs reported adding a C-level position in the past five years, with chief innovation officer, chief digital officer and chief strategy officer the most frequent additions. Three quarters of CEOs in our study said they were currently considering changing or adding C-suite roles, with digital transformation, innovation and artificial intelligence seen as key capability gaps.

This wave of C-suite change is likely to be accelerated in line with the changing nature of the issues senior leaders face: our study found a majority (57%) of CEOs of Forbes 2000 companies believe it’s in the best interest of large companies and their leaders to take a much more active role in addressing global challenges.

Climate science and the ability to address the growing corporate decarbonization imperative is critical. Similarly, the need for expertise in behavioral science is rising, given the shock of the pandemic and the fear and uncertainty of resulting lockdowns. Will people now prize in-person interactions or prefer social media? Will the shared experience of COVID-19 enhance social trust and solidarity or diminish them? How will modes of meeting, collaboration and entertainment change?

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Given the extremely high stakes of executive decision-making, now is the time for business leaders to assess their C-suite in light of the imperatives and opportunities that will present themselves in the wake of COVID-19.

Leaders versus laggards

There are clear distinctions between leaders and laggards on this issue. Leading CEOs link their corporate purpose to addressing global challenges and integrate a plan on addressing them into corporate strategy. They also leverage their organizations’ economic power to drive needed change in areas such as supply chain, purchasing, regulatory and workforce.

EY CEO Imperative study


of leading CEOs expect to become more active on global challenges

The CEO’s mindset and approach are important differentiators. Much more than laggards, leading CEOs take personal responsibility for assessing the global challenges they will address and actively engage with their boards and investors to secure support for needed investments. It’s not surprising that 80% of the leading CEOs expect to become even more active on global challenges over the next five to ten years.


With C-suites focused on business continuity and recovery, it’s easy to lose sight of the opportunity to shape the new normal that lies beyond. The economic and social dislocations of the COVID-19 crisis represent a global reset, accelerating some trends, creating new ones, and ending others. Within this, there is a once in a lifetime opportunity for business to lead in the creation of a better new normal — but the C-suite must be prepared.

About this article

By John de Yonge

EY Global Markets EYQ Global Insights Director

Analyst and thought leader focused on disruption, sustainability and megatrends. Proponent of innovation for meeting global resource challenges. Skier. Fly-fisher. Tae kwon do black belt.