New Strengths and New Opportunities: Executive Effectiveness Post-COVID

By Erin Wilson Burns, Leslie Kawai | July 3, 2024

<p>Key Takeaways:&nbsp;</p>

    <li>The experience of leading through the pandemic era has resulted in areas of overall improvement in executive leadership as well as areas where executive effectiveness has declined.</li>
    <li>C-Suite leaders and HR professionals charged with executive development can use these findings to help executives identify, reinforce, and maintain critical gains while (re)building the skills they need to sustain organizational performance in today&rsquo;s world.&nbsp;</li>

Executive leaders have shouldered the weight of guiding their organizations through the uncertainty and radical changes of the last five years. As they have done that, they have gained important strengths—and also developed several new gaps.


To understand how the experiences of leading during COVID impacted executives’ leadership strengths, we turned to our longitudinal Leadership Code database that contains over 2.2 million ratings from 2009-2023. We isolated 161,525 ratings of executive leaders from the periods of 2015-2019 (pre-Covid) and 2021-2023 (post-Covid). Each executive in the database was evaluated by their manager, peers, and direct reports on 67 leadership behaviors drawn from five research-based leadership domains (Strategist, Executor, Human Capital Developer, Talent Manager, and Personal Proficiency) in the RBL Leadership Code®. We then looked at which behavioral items had the biggest change in ratings from pre- to post-COVID.

Whereas our analysis for first-line and mid-level leaders revealed exclusively positive statistically significant gains in leadership behaviors from pre- to post-COVID, our research shows both positive and negative differences for executives. In several important areas – unlike first-line and mid-level leaders – executives were perceived as less effective post-COVID.(While this analysis focuses on where executive leaders increased or decreased in perceived effectiveness, see here for our findings on how leadership requirements have changed for executive leaders.)

What went up? 

In examining the data, three themes emerge as areas where executives have gained important strengths: 

  1. Personally investing time in growing and retaining leaders. In addition to the behaviors included in the table above, the overall domain of Human Capital Developer (which reflects behaviors critical to strategically building next-generation talent) is the only domain where executives show greater strength post-COVID. The data show that executives grew in the following areas: effectively identifying future talent, engaging in career conversations with them to help them see the path forward, providing he opportunities they need to build the competencies that will create success, sharing the unique opportunities your organization offers them in their career journey, and being willing to spend the time required to do all of the work to build human capital.
  2. Getting outside the executive bubble. Another key strength executives grew during the pandemic is a set of behaviors that speak to avoiding executive isolation. Executives often allow too much distance to form between them and the first-hand information that is important for informed and stakeholder-centered decision-making. As market conditions shifted more quickly during and after the pandemic, and the environment became more uncertain, executives appear to have responded by leaning more proactively into keeping people well-informed, seeking input from customers, seeking and responding to feedback on their own strengths and weaknesses, and keeping closer tabs on the work of the teams in their organization. 
  3. Looking for creative ways to solve problems. Similar to mid-level leaders, the data show that executives grew in their ability to creatively solve unexpected problems. Faced with the unprecedented external challenges, executives both had to find new ways of working and doing business and were also suddenly freed from many of the constraints that made it more likely and safer to follow existing protocols. The result was a improvement in creative thinking for both mid- and executive-level leaders.

What went down?  

After seeing only improvements in first-line and mid-level leaders, we were surprised to see several meaningful and significant declines in certain areas for executive leaders.  The following two areas are where the most significant and consistent drops appear in the data:

  1. Engagement. The data show that the three biggest declines are in behaviors reflecting engagement and passion for the work: believing the work is important and adds value, showing exceptional commitment and energy to achieve organizational goals, and passionately enjoying and caring about the work they do. There is no question that COVID caused a lot of people to reevaluate their priorities and decrease their focus on work, and executives are no exception. That said, this pattern did not show up for other leadership groups and the overall scores are still quite high. Perhaps the decline reflects a pattern of individual re-alignment of priorities to provide better balance and attention to personal well-being. Perhaps the decline simply reflects a gradual decline in passion and engagement as the uncertainty of the external environment continues. Perhaps the bar is simply higher than it was pre-COVID as employees expect a level of genuine connection to inspire their commitment. Or, it may be that the expectations for executives were so high for the level of work and commitment the organization expected from its executives, that the bar for executive-level engagement raised impossibly high.
  2. Having a point-of-view about the future. The data for these two behaviors (having a clearly articulated point of view about the future and making tough decisions) is less of a realignment of a strength and more of a drop in effectiveness—moving from above the overall mean to below the overall mean of all behaviors. We believe this is a result of two converging themes: first, complex economic and geo-political situations make it more challenging to confidently assert a point-of-view when there are so many unknowns; and second, the increased uncertainty drives a need for greater direction from mid- and first-line leaders. We think this lack of confidence in a future direction could also be impacting the engagement and commitment discussed in the paragraph above.


For C-suite leaders and HR professional who support them, the following suggestions can help solidify behaviors where executive leaders made improvements and rebuild and reinforce critical areas where they declined: 

  • Help executives identify, reinforce, and maintain critical gains in building next-generation talent. 
  • Give executives the tools to better navigate uncertainty in a way that builds confidence in the future with the organizations internal and external stakeholders. See this article for six practices to help executives embrace and harness uncertainty. 
  • Coach executives to use their newly gained strengths in getting outside the executive bubble to refine and share decisions about where the organization is headed in the future. Help them find the appropriate balance of holding several long-term options open for the future while creating a short-term path that can create clear priorities mid-level leaders can use to guide their organizations.
  • Give executives space to tend to their individual wellbeing to rekindle passion and engagement, build stress reserves and confidence, and allow them to bring their full cognitive resources to the challenges of today.

To discuss how this research can help you build an evidence-based leadership brand and culture that increases value for your stakeholders, contact us to be connected with our leadership development experts. 

For more executive leadership research insights, click here. For mid-level leadership research highlights, click here. For first-line leadership research highlights, click here.

Erin is a principal at The RBL Group with 20 years of experience in leadership development, executive coaching, and organization design and transformation consulting.

About the author

Leslie is a principal with the RBL Group. She is an experienced executive coach who combines cognitive-behavior research and leadership development to help leaders and organizations drive business results through high performance.

About the author
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