Gartner Research

Executive Pulse: Leadership Priorities for 2021, Shaped by a Year of Crisis

Published: 03 December 2020


As functional leaders chart a path forward after a chaotic year, here are ways that many executives are planning to prioritize their teams’ efforts in 2021.

Fast word on tactics and concerns from thousands participating in our conference calls and polls.

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Changing budgets, using technology to improve efficiency, data privacy issues, the return to the workplace, and the need to support growth and innovation — these are among the many factors informing the priorities of functional leaders heading into 2021.

After a year of heavy cost-cutting, more than half (56%) of chief marketing officers expect their budgets to increase by 5% or more in 2021. Almost three quarters (73%) of respondents in a 3Q20 survey told us they will primarily target existing customers in the coming year — rather than focusing on new ones. Of those…

  • Thirty-nine percent are looking to sell existing products

  • Thirty-four percent want to sell new products

Primary Strategy to Fuel Growth Into 2021

Most (87%) HR leaders expect to reduce costs next year, according to a 3Q20 survey. To find savings, 64% plan to lean on existing technology to improve processes, while 43% anticipate making new technology investments to make their teams more efficient.

Top HR Cost-Saving Measures for 2021

Facing continued budget pressures in 2021, legal, privacy and compliance leaders anticipate more work dealing with a gathering swell of new privacy laws and proposed regulations in U.S. states, and in countries including China, India and Brazil. They are also expecting to handle increased risks from working remotely, returning to the workplace and the tracking of employee health data.

In a survey of chief compliance officers from May to October this year...

  • Sixty-one percent think that privacy processes related to collection, use and sharing of employee and/or consumer health information will become increasingly important in 2021.

  • Fifty-eight percent say employee-facing training, communications and messages will become more important.

  • Forty-four percent anticipate handling these challenges with a reduced budget.

Future of Compliance in 2021

Meanwhile, forty-nine percent of respondents in a June to September survey of legal leaders say the pandemic has exposed weakness in their teams’ technology use and adoption — setting the stage for efforts to close these gaps in the coming year.

Top 4 Weakness Revealed During COVID-19

Research and development (R&D) leaders want to devote more time in 2021 to longer-term innovation and product development — rather than short-term fixes for pandemic needs — in order to harness future growth. Among their biggest priorities for the year ahead…

  • Surfacing new ideas for innovation (77%)

  • Anticipating future technology needs (77%)

  • Assessing the value of long-term opportunities (73%)

  • Rationalizing investments in the R&D portfolio (73%)

  • Improving employee performance in a new work environment (69%)

Top Ten Activities for R&D Leaders in 2021

During C-suite planning sessions, 88% of strategy leaders will be focusing more on new opportunities and threats, while 86% will intensify their examination of assumptions underpinning their strategy. Seventy-seven percent of respondents to this 3Q20 survey say they will be looking more closely at whether the business is capable of executing the strategy.

Focus of C-Suite During Strategic Planning

Almost half (49%) of chief sales officers planned to accelerate the early pipeline and lead generation efforts when asked in August to name their top three critical priorities. Forty-one percent also want to improve their virtual selling capabilities heading into 2021:

Critical Sales Initiatives

  • Strategy

  • Sales

  • Marketing

  • Research and Development

  • HR

  • Legal, privacy and compliance

  • PRM

Graphics Support from Steve Shapiro

Compiled by Daniel Ryntjes

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Recommended by the Authors


Corporate Strategy Research Team

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