CEO Pulse Survey 2020

Korn Ferry surveyed 773 Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) from around the globe. We explored the evolving demands of the CEO role, transparency and authenticity in the way they lead, and how they are navigating through the thick fog of the global health crisis.

Trust and transparency amid a crisis

Leaders must rely on agility, transparency, and forward-thinking strategies, especially in times of crisis. Indeed, when asked how their companies could succeed in this environment, fully one in four CEOs said that “placing a priority on creating a culture of trust and transparency” and “breaking down hierarchies and building agility” were paramount. Furthermore, one-third of CEOs said the qualities they felt were most critical to their success were being authentic (33%) and inspirational (24%).

“CEOs are under relentless pressure to deliver results while also transforming their business,” says Tierney Remick, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader of Korn Ferry’s Board and CEO Services practice. “Employees, customers, and communities are looking for leadership that can be trusted and leadership that is real and authentic amid all the turbulence. Stakeholders want to work with leaders who are courageous, have vision, embrace inclusivity, and possess real integrity.”

The digital journey, ramped up

The survey showed 50% of CEOs were optimistic about how digitally enabled their employees are. Yet the rapid switch many companies experienced when employees started working from home showed that some CEOs may have been overconfident in the workforce’s digital ability: only 30% of CEOs said digital was the new normal, compared to 21% of CIOs. “Technology is no longer solely the realm of technology companies,” says Remick. In fact, 39% of CEOs said leveraging digital tools was the company’s primary strategy for preparing for success in the changing workplace.

Enabling the company to act fast amid unknowns

For many companies, business went from normal to unprecedented in a mere six weeks. The crisis showed the need for CEOs to be able to operate in the gray and to move quickly and strategically. “We’ve seen the elimination of the meeting before the meeting before the meeting to save time,” Remick says. “Right now, we’re still in a fog. CEOs have to make tough calls and survive and get through it all. No one knows how long it will last and what the recovery will be like.”

CEO Action Plan


  • Double down on clarity of communication and authenticity to both engage and support employees
  • Ensure the entire C-suite has an all-hands-on-deck mentality to lean in and move quickly
  • Listen more; empathy is proving to be a differentiator amid the crisis


  • Break down hierarchies to allow for more agile teams
  • Ensure impactful teams include diverse voices, experiences, and perspectives
  • Continue to become more comfortable with the idea of “leadership in the gray”


  • Map out a road to recovery, whether that means working with banks, restructuring, or doubling down on a core area
  • Consider revamping the top leadership team to better align with any new priorities for the business
  • Debrief on “lessons learned” to help the company learn from the unprecedented global crisis