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Specialists, Caretakers, and Chameleons: The C-suite in 2021



It’s a challenging time for corporations.

The first years of the twenty-first century have seen a period of rapid technological innovation, an explosion of entrepreneurial activity, and globalization on an unparalleled pace. Nations have experienced unexpected political upheavals. Markets have shifted and changed. So have the employees we lead. And executive teams have never looked quite this way before.

No longer is the C-suite defined by elder statesmen in corner offices at the pinnacles of long, successful careers in a single company. We now live in an era rampant with job hopping, a time in which twenty-somethings launch billion-dollar companies, and organizations face constant pressure to disrupt or be disrupted.

Executives understand the changes that have already happened –but are struggling to predict what changes will come next.

To that end, Russell Reynolds Associates partnered with Trendera in the summer and fall of 2016 to interview thirty executives and thought leaders from around the world to obtain their point of view on the forces that will shape commerce and industry, and what we can expect the C-suite to look like in 2021. These individuals lived and worked around the world, represented both emerging and established organizations, and came from industry, academia, and professional services. These interviews covered the forces that are impacting all of us today, the changes in our working lives that are on the horizon, and the ultimate insight: What leadership teams will look like, and be doing differently, five years from now.

Some of these changes are good for business. Others will make our lives more complicated. But all of them, good or bad, may very well be the reality with which we have to contend.

The C-suite in 2021


  1. Culture wars: New executive roles

  2. The modern (C-suite) family: Role shaping and customization

  3. Head versus heart: The tension between data and soft skills

  4. Chameleons trump experts: The rise of the agile specialist

  5. The world is flat: Egalitarianism infiltrates the C-suite

  6. The parent trap: Moving from bosses to caretakers

  7. Redefining success and loyalty in organizations

  8. Leading through a shared purpose and vision

  9. The weak shall be strong: Cultivating empowerment and approachability

  10. Disrupting diversity –or –A comfort with constructive conflict

Culture wars: New executive roles

TrendTaking a cue from the world’s most visionary companies, our experts tell us to expect new C-suite roles to be created to promote people, culture, and a focus on the future. Not simply focusing on the warm and fuzzy elements of culture, these executives will enable companies to adapt faster and compete more successfully for critical talent. Of course, these new roles are much more prominent in emerging organizations, but they are gradually trickling up to older ones as well.

Forward-thinking C-suites recognize that organizational culture is the defining hallmark of a company’s brand and the embodiment of its core values. As a result, new executive roles will be created surrounding the creation and upholding of an uplifting company culture that sits at the core of competitive advantage.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
C-suite executives will increasingly occupy prominent leadership roles, working closely with CHROs, CMOs, and brand managers to shape, change, and promote essential elements of organizational culture.

Chief Culture Officers and Chief People Officers promote internal company culture and employee happiness. Experts with experience at younger, digital-first organizations, including Sara Sperling, formerly of Snapchat, particularly noted the necessity of these positions.

The modern (C-suite) family: Role shaping and customization

We are growing used to everything being tailored to our own personal needs. From food to entertainment to everything in between, our world has become increasingly customized to who we are and what we want. It’s no surprise then that many experts see existing roles in the C-suite evolving to become more individualized and suited to a person’s specific strengths.

Furthermore, as the C-suite becomes a more collaborative and cross-functional place, the rise of role fluidity will enhance an organizations’ creativity and overall effectiveness.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
Although many C-suite titles may remain similar, role individualization will likely lead each C-suite role (and roles in general) away from rigid job descriptions and toward work that better aligns individual strengths with organizational needs.

To be a top executive, it really benefits if you’ve done more than one type of large job. Different lines, staffs, functions, operations, sales, technology, whatever it may be, I think traditional companies tend to promote within their functional lines because that’s where the expertise is. That’s the path to lowest resistance, but I know that’s short sighted for developing executives.

Martin Weissburg, Executive Vice President, AB Volvo

Head verses heart: The tension between data and soft skills

There is growing awareness across industries surrounding the need for complementary skillsets in the C-suite. Our experts attest that big data is truly taking over the working world, and without question the executives of the future must have a strong foundation of data analytics and tech savviness to keep up. Equally important is the need for softer skills and emotional intelligence in leaders who have exceptional hard skills. The executives of tomorrow will need to be masters of multiple capability sets to be successful.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
Data, data, and more data. Executives will gain fluency in data and analytics, and increasingly turn to data models for decision making, while at the same time aggressively converting terabytes of data into useful insights. At the same time, metrics will be created to gauge difficult to measure, yet essential leadership qualities such as emotional intelligence and relationship building skills. As behavioral science continues to advance, we’ll have an extremely accurate and data-based depiction of how a successful leader looks and acts as well as tools to see how executives stack up.

You’re going to have to get people who are really comfortable looking at things and making judgment calls, because analysis paralysis is already here. You have to have a gut, right? I can give you data that says we should build another store, but I can give you just as much data that says we shouldn’t. At some point you have to have gut.

John Koryl, President, Neiman Marcus

Chameleons trump experts: The rise of the agile specialist

Many of our experts have noticed, both in the workplace and in society at large, that adaptability is becoming more important than deep knowledge. Of course, that isn’t to say that expertise is on the outs, but in a world that moves faster with each passing year, having an expert without the ability to move quickly is having an anchor in your organization. Accordingly, the ability to innovate and develop and execute solutions on the fly are currently perceived as some of the most valuable executive skillsets for the future.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
Going forward, C-suite executives must become Agile Specialists, executives who may not necessarily have the same level of expertise as their predecessors, but are just as valuable for their ability to act quickly and provide effective solutions to keep up with the times. These Agile Specialists are equally as valuable in the C-suite as leaders with deep expertise. In partnership, they make a powerful team.

Executives will need to adopt more of a scrappy start-up mentality in both their speed and approach to problems, which may also require a leaner staff to be able to pivot quicker.

There’s a tremendous amount of ageism [in the C-suite] right now. It’s all about millennials, and I do think that there is going to have to be some sort of reconciliation between people who are young and have great ideas about how to do things along with older people who actually have experience and who have been in good markets and bad markets. You need to have a good balance of people with great creative ideas and people who have experience and are a little more grounded in their experience.

Steve Stanford, Senior Vice President of Business Development, Samsung

The world is flat: Egalitarianism infiltrates the C-suite

One of the most impactful trends shaping the C-suite is the shift toward the structural flattening of hierarchy in the workplace, a direct result of a cultural move toward egalitarianism and democracy in general. And so it is beginning to go with company leadership, with even the biggest companies dispersing influence by creating less rigid hierarchies and more channels for input among their employees.

While this might look like a benevolent gift of egalitarianism, it may possibly indicate a growing lack of desire for responsibility or true accountability among younger Millennials and Gen Zs. The real question: Will younger workers really want to be leaders and stand up to take responsibility in the C-suite?

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
Although the jury is still out on the effectiveness and level of productivity within less hierarchical companies, for the trend toward egalitarianism will allow it to assume a stronghold within C-suites, particularly in emerging organizations.

This will necessitate the creation of new leadership styles as authority is distributed and dispersed. Leaders may begin to shun practices such as pulling rank and asserting individual authority in favor of adopting a more group-minded, democratic approach. The best leaders will find balance here, comfortably leading more egalitarian teams, while also active decisively when the situation calls for it.

We have a societal trend towards a much more egalitarian, accepting [work environment] where it’s not cool to be the boss. When you talk about leadership, [Millennials especially] have a real hesitation almost as if, to them, being a leader means being bossy and outspoken and telling people what to do.

Rob Kaiser, President, Kaiser Leadership Solutions

The parent trap: Moving from bosses to caretakers

We used to fear our bosses. Then we started having beers with them. In the future, our bosses may not only be our friends, but our caretakers as well. Partly due to a fear of losing their talent, and partly due to an increase in survey-based management and frequent emotional temperature taking among employees, many experts felt compassionate leadership was becoming of paramount importance in the modern C-suite, particularly within more nimble, digital-first companies.

As a result, future-forward executives are making an effort to put their people first, making employees’ wellness and happiness a priority in order to enable them to produce their best work. However, this well-intentioned philosophy could grow into a dysfunctional (not to mention costly) burden to bear as executives take on an increasing amount of responsibility for employees’ welfare, potentially leading to a lack of independence and resilience in the broader workforce.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
In a few years, we’ll see employers begin to take on an unprecedented level of responsibility for their employees’ welfare, investing perhaps too heavily in positions and resources to sustain employees’ physical, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual wellbeing. Smart leaders, though, will find ways to support their employees while continuing to develop their independence and resilience.

You invest in your people and convince them to want to be a part of the team and want to make it better… [Future-forward] companies are creating a culture that is very open, collaborative, diverse, and also a lot of fun. There’s this belief that you can have fun while you work and it shouldn’t be a trade-off.

RanjanGoswami, Vice President of Sales, Delta Airlines

Rethinking success and loyalty in organizations

Younger workers and executives are redefining how things are done in the C-suite. For this group, there are new definitions of what success and loyalty will mean: Loyalty is not about how long someone stays, it’s about the value of the contributions made during one’s employment and the level of investment during his or her tenure, however long or short it may be.

With declining tenures, and increasing focus on non-financial goals, success can no longer be judged simply by profit: The future members of the C-suite will begin to view it in more holistic terms: By what the company is contributing to the world; the values it promotes, the lifestyle it offers, and the societal advancement it provides.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
While they will still be economically motivated, up-and-coming executives will be more comfortable putting their money where their mouth is, making decisions that may sacrifice (some) margin for the sake of the greater good, from sustainability to social issues.

Furthermore, expectations surrounding corporate loyalty will become more reflective of the times: Whether entry level or executive, few will stay—or be expected to stay—at a company for years on end. The concept of tenure may be reduced to tours of duty, and the idea of service redefined as a promise of complete engagement in the pursuit of common goals.

Perhaps the idea is that you have this period in which as an employee and employer, you both acknowledge that this isn’t going to be forever. Maybe it isn’t going to be for five years, maybe it’s for three years. You both acknowledge that and then adopt the mindset of ‘let’s make the most of this time together and get the most out of this period together.’

Executive, Partnerships Manager, Social Media Company

Leading through a shared purpose and vision

Visionary CEOs have become corporate role models for Millennials, a generation of workers for whom it’s not enough to simply collect a paycheck. Their desire to derive meaning and purpose from their work cannot be underestimated as they dream of working to advance a shared vision and devoting their efforts to an organization and team with values reflective of their own. However, moving forward, many of our experts say a visionary CEO is not going to be enough. The most successful organizations will have every member of the C-suite living and breathing the purpose and values of the company.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
The new generation of workers will flock to purpose-driven teams rather than standout individual leaders; thus we’ll move beyond the visionary CEO to the purpose-and values-driven C-suite. Executive leadership teams, and the values they espouse, will be just as important and as much of a draw to an organization as those of the company and CEO.

Additionally, executives in 2021 will have an internal marketing obligation in the sense that they will be expected to promote their purpose and values to their company. This may be uncharted territory for many leaders who have spent entire careers staying out of the spotlight, or simply hoping that their results speak for themselves.

People are going to work to connect with a purpose. I think there needs to be purpose-driven leadership, because in our younger work force it is extremely important for them to connect with a cause.

Jan Wilmking, Senior Vice President, Zalando

The weak shall be strong: Cultivating empowerment and approachability

Moving forward, nice—or at the very least, nicer—guys may just finish first. The domination of the command and control-based leader no longer resonates in today’s workplace. Going forward, great leadership will be defined by empowering others and adopting more of an others-focused approach. In the future, a laundry list of degrees and titles may now be less important than a listening ear.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
Qualities that were previously perceived as weak in the workplace may become hallmarks of the great leaders of the future: empathy, humility, respect, empowerment, and a lack of ego. As executives rely more heavily on others and have an abundance of data insights at their disposal, their level of awareness will become wider as well. This improved understanding of their organization and surroundings, combined with qualities such as empathy and respect, will likely lead to changes in how organizations treat their workers, engage with their customers, and position themselves in the marketplace.

When you have to choose between someone who wasn’t quite as strong but a great guy and someone who’s the absolute best at their job but an [expletive], most would go for the former each time, because you don’t want to disrupt the balance in culture. A great guy, you can work with, you can grow with, but the [expletive]’s going to poison the well.

Allison Kluger, Allison KlugerMedia Consulting; Co-Instructor, Stanford Business School

Disrupting diversity–or–A comfort with constructive conflict

When it comes to innovation, most organizations would rather be the disruptors than the disrupted. But how does a company breed disruptive thought and true innovation? The short answer: diversity of everything.

Organizations are recognizing that diversity in the C-suite is not only important in terms of keeping with the times, it’s also the only way to stay ahead in today’s fast paced world. With diversity comes increased collaboration, cross-pollination of ideas, and cross-functional thinking.

So while we may have more nice guys (and gals) in the C-suite going forward, it’s not going to be all rainbows and sunshine. Diversity will expand as executives seek disparity in everything, yet strive to maintain tolerance for it all. Living in conflict is not only to be expected, but celebrated.

Implication for the C-suite in 2021
The future C-suite will strive to achieve diversity of everything—not only in gender, race, and age, but also in thought, perspective, experience, and chemistry—in an effort to cultivate purposeful conflict and innovative thought. Our experts anticipate that we’ll likely see C-suite dynamics become more balanced and representative of the world at large, but possibly more confrontational and conflict-ridden as well. The ability to promote constructive conflict will increasingly be a critical skill for effective C-suite leaders.

Diversity is no longer [limited to] gender diversity, it’s diversity of experience. I think we now recognize that management teams that have greater diversity typically make better decisions. In order to use this diversity in the management team, you also need a slightly different relationship between the boss and the subordinate and it’s a relationship in which the subordinates have to speak up more and have a responsibility to speak up more and a boss has a responsibility to listen more.

Ian Riley, Vice President, LafargeHolcim

Study Participants

  • Adam Grant, Professor at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

  • Allison Kluger, President, Allison KlugerMedia Consulting; Co-Instructor, Stanford Business School

  • Antoine de Saint Affrique, Chief Executive Officer, Barry Callebaut AG

  • Armando Netto, Chief Executive Officer, FleetCor Technologies, Brazil

  • Arthur Ochoa, Senior Vice President, Community Relations & Development, Cedars-Sinai Health System

  • Barry Posner, Professor of Leadership, Santa Clara University

  • Bob Hogan PhD, Founder, Hogan Assessment Systems

  • Conrad Bloser, Chief Operating Officer, Lieferheld GmbH

  • Estanislau Bassols, Chief Executive Officer, VR Beneficios

  • Executive, Founding Partner, Venture Capital Firm*

  • Executive, Founder of Multi-Million Dollar e-Commerce Retailer*

  • Executive, Partnerships Manager at Social Media Company*

  • Executive, Venture Capital and Private Equity*

  • Gigi Guerra, Director of Curation and Collaborations, Target

  • Ian Riley, Vice President, LafargeHolcim

  • Jan Wilmking, Senior Vice President, Zalando

  • Jim Kouzes, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University

  • John Koryl, President, Neiman Marcus

  • Kate White, Writer and Speaker

  • Lodro Rinzler, Co-founder and Chief Spiritual Officer, M N D F L

  • Marcus Buckingham, Founder, The Marcus Buckingham Company

  • Martin Weissburg, Executive Vice President, AB Volvo

  • Maxwell Miao, General Manager, ZF-TRW Automotive Holding Company

  • Prasad Dasika, Senior Vice President, Tata Communications

  • Ranjan Goswami, Vice President of Sales, Delta Airlines

  • Reveta Bowers, Former Head of The Center for Early Education

  • Rob Kaiser, President, Kaiser Leadership Solutions

  • Ron Sugar, Former CEO, Northrop Grumman Corporation

  • Sara Sperling, Partner, Oxegen Consulting LLC

  • Steve Stanford, Senior Vice President of Business Development, Samsung


* Requested to provide insights anonymously



PJ NEAL manages the RRA Center for Leadership Insight. He oversees the Center’s day-to-day operations, as well as planning the Center’s research agenda and creating its intellectual property. He is based in Boston.

TODD SAFFERSTONE leads Corporate Partnerships and New Product Development at Russell Reynolds Associates. He is based in New York.

DEAN STAMOULIS leads the RRA Center for Leadership Insight. His consulting work includes advising organizations on CEO succession and selection, as well as leadership team composition and performance. He is based in Atlanta.

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