Challenger Leadership Survey May 2021

“Developing Women Leaders” Most Critical Leadership Issue Pre- And Post- COVID

Published May 2021

The country is entering a recovery phase, both from the pandemic and from the Recession. Many companies are assessing their leaders and determining what is most important going forward. According to a survey from global outplacement and business and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., the highest percentage – 93% – of business and HR leaders from companies across the country said “developing women leaders” is the most critical leadership issue and another 89% said “developing leaders with both unseen and seen diversity” is most critical post-COVID.

The findings were collected in a survey conducted online April 14th through May 7th among 191 companies of various industries and sizes nationwide.

“No doubt reestablishing women talent is critical to the recovery from the pandemic-induced Recession, and leaders are acutely aware and that they need this representation in their executive-levels and are actively investing in it,” said Andrew Challenger, Senior Vice President of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc.

Developing Women, Diverse Leaders Will Be Crucial Post-COVID

Myriad economic indicators continue to suggest women, and women of color particularly, are taking a hit in the labor market. At the height of the pandemic, nearly 3 million fewer women were employed than pre-pandemic, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over half a million fewer Black women and 478,000 fewer Latinx women over the age of 20 were working in March 2021 than in the same month a year earlier. According to Challenger tracking, less than 23% of incoming CEOs are women, while just 6% of S&P 500 companies have women CEOs.

“Developing women leaders” was also the most selected critical issue pre-COVID, with 76% of executives choosing it. The other most selected issues pre-COVID were “offering critical feedback” (73%), “effective communication” and “problem solving” (72% each), and “strategic acumen” (71%).



See the full infographic

Pre-COVID: Top Leadership Issues

“Prior to the pandemic, the #MeToo movement created much-needed dialogue and action around the experience of women in their professional lives, so it’s not surprising that a high number of business leaders reported that developing women leaders was a critical component pre-COVID, as well,” said Challenger.

“With the renewed focus on racial justice and diversity, creating professional opportunities for those voices to be amplified will be imperative to businesses going forward. Increasingly organizations are committing to action and accountability,” he added.

“Confidence During Uncertainty” Most Critical During COVID

In the Midst of COVID: Top Leadership Issues

During the pandemic, the top issue for leaders was “confidence during uncertainty,” selected by 94% of executives. Only 30% of executives said it was important before the pandemic, and 63% believe it is crucial going forward. The other top issues during COVID were “agility” (91%), “effective communication” (90%), “empathy” (89%), and “resilience” (88%).

Interestingly, 33% of leaders felt “empathy” was crucial prior to the pandemic and 72% feel it is crucial after the pandemic ends.

Challenger survey results. Does your organization develop leadership? When are you planning to return to the office post-pandemic? Digital Artist, Nicole Lobdell for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. © (Piktochart)

Source: Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. Click the image to view the full infographic.

“This is an excellent opportunity for businesses to inject empathy into their leadership styles. Employers will very much need it during the next phase of this pandemic and post-pandemic, as their teams deal with how the pandemic, lockdowns, and potential other traumas affected them during this past year,” said Challenger.

Of the respondents, 66% reported they actively develop talent. Of those, the majority (72%) conduct in-house management training, 64% give regular feedback, and 61% engage executive coaching.

“It’s one thing to commit to developing women and diverse leaders, but it’s something else to actually do the work. In order to execute on these plans, businesses need to develop and implement policy to create the opportunities for talent to move forward,” said Challenger.


Organizational Leadership Changes

The survey also revealed that 79% of respondents experienced leadership changes in the last year, with 35% seeing these changes in the C-Suite. Less than 9% of respondents experienced no change, but expect changes to occur.

Digital Artist, Nicole Lobdell for Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. © (Piktochart)

Source: Challenger, Gray, & Christmas Click the image to view full infographic.

“The pandemic fundamentally changed the way we work and lead. Most companies are entering a period of hybrid or partially remote teams, which may require different management styles and attitudes. There is a real and exciting opportunity for companies’ transformation as the country reimagines the future of work,” said Challenger.

See the full infographic here.

# # #

Download Survey Results Report