Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
January 22, 2021

Leadership Trends from CES 2021

By Spencer Stuart's Global CES Team

A year ago, we wrote that CES is a “microcosm of the broader landscape,” and of course, that was true this year. The 2021 CES had its usual dazzling array of new technologies — from solar-powered cars to unbelievably thin and picture-perfect OLED TVs to every known personal and desk-fitness device one could think of (or so we thought). But, like everything these days, it was hardly business as usual. Mirroring the pandemic-related shutdown of the past year, the bright lights of Las Vegas were replaced by four days of virtual presentations.

While we remain hopeful for future in-person gatherings — particularly at CES 2022 — we wanted to share some of the key trends and their talent implications that have emerged from CES 2021, and from our conversations with leading executives across the world.

  1. The digital transformation carries on

    Digital transformation has been on the agenda for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically increased the pace of change. Work and school moved online, forcing organizations to pivot their processes almost immediately. E-commerce expanded its foothold to nearly every spending category. Digital health moved from possibility to reality as patients sought care from their homes during the pandemic. With many theaters and stadiums closed, in-home streaming entertainment expanded its footprint, as did more interesting and intimate engagement models with athletes and entertainers. Even as the world slowly reopens post-COVID, many of the changes of the past year may be permanent, reshaping corporate culture, decision-making and design, customer engagement, and in-demand skills going forward.

    Leaders across the C-suite — from CEOs and boards to functional leads — need to understand this landscape. They need a strong understanding of how their services and products will adapt, on the customer’s point of view, and on how to foster a culture that is agile and flexible enough to innovate in a fast-changing environment. (Take this diagnostic to learn more about how you may need to adjust your company’s digital roadmap.)

  2. Automotive and other industrial sectors embrace technology

    We were reminded this year of Theodore Levitt’s famous comment that the railroad industry lost customers because it saw itself in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business. If CES 2021 was a sign, today’s industrial companies seem to be taking Levitt’s comment to heart, pushing their long-established boundaries to meet consumers where they are in this connected world. For automotive and other industrial companies at CES this year, the noteworthy were smart cars, drones, smart cities and flying cars — all driven by cross-industry partnerships.

    As these technologies become omnipresent, companies must ensure they have strong talent in areas such as cost-effective devices and components to take advantage of widespread 5G, cybersecurity, ethical data consumption usage with AI, and the integration of many-point solutions. The challenge is finding leadership that can align these areas culturally and logistically.

  3. 5G expands its footprint

    5G has been on the radar for several years now, but CES 2021 demonstrated some signs that this may be the year that the world really begins to feel its impact. Presentations at CES demonstrated the breadth of possibilities 5G could have in changing how companies operate, and how people experience the world. One industry that could immediately benefit is healthcare, where remote surgeries could make a major impact, especially during the pandemic.

    As 5G reaches more markets, the next steps are about creating innovations that can tap into 5G’s possibility. But to achieve that, tech companies will need a broader executive base beyond the industry. And they will need to focus their talent efforts on leadership orientation more than mere technological capabilities.

  4. Virtual leadership becomes an imperative

    In 2020, leaders had to adjust to being in charge of geographically dispersed teams. Many executives, accustomed to leading on the ground — in stores with customers, in conference rooms with colleagues and fellow executives, in casual conversations around the office — were forced to adapt to leading people who were in their own homes on video conferences. Even as the pandemic wanes, we expect many companies to allow for more remote arrangements. Going forward, leaders will need to remember the importance of trust, collaboration and effective communication. (Read more in “Leading from a Distance: 5 Lessons for Successful Virtual Teaming.”)

  5. Virtual hiring and onboarding carry on, refreshment and rejuvenation may be equally necessary

    Facing the pandemic and a corresponding economic crisis, strong leadership teams were never more important as they navigate their companies through rough waters. So even when workplaces went fully remote, the job of filling key leadership positions never halted, and many time-tested hiring processes and onboarding moved to virtual settings — with limited negative impact from the changes. As many companies consider more flexible work arrangements post-pandemic, many of these adjustments to hiring and possibly organization designs will likely remain. We see expanded kickoffs being used to reignite the fire within entire organizations and their ecosystems. Most recently, a leading tech cloud provider converted its previously scheduled in-person sales kickoff event into a weeklong, companywide virtual gathering; with up to 6,000 employees and partners participated in sessions, the company reignited its employee base.

  6. Media is going all-in on streaming

    CES 2021, available only in a live-stream version, was a reminder of the past year for many around the world in how they consumed entertainment, and likely also a portent for the year ahead. Disney, Warner Media, Discovery and Viacom are just a few of the major media players moving much of their focus to online streaming, especially as other elements of their business (including movie theaters, theme parks and traditional television) have faced varying levels of difficulty in the past year. Warner Bros., for example, whose Wonder Woman blockbuster movie was released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max, plans for similar releases of all of its 2021 movies. As the delivery model shifts, leaders must adopt a customer-first mindset, driving greater collaboration across organizations between creative and product/tech teams.

  7. Ecosystem management is key, powered in many instances by the new platform economy

    One clear message from the pandemic is that we cannot do it alone. Regardless of size, organizations must master the art of hiring leaders who can effectively create, nurture and embrace complex ecosystems. Examples we saw at CES 2021 included Abbott’s EVP of rapid diagnostics and Microsoft’s chief medical officer discussing molecular testing and the supply chain logistics of distributing vaccines. A partnership between Shopify and AliPay allows US companies to connect with billions of users in other parts of the world. Developer ecosystems should not be confined to traditional technology companies; bringing these skills into non-tech industries is a huge opportunity to help the digitalization of industry leap forward.


A year ago, few imagined the depth of transformation our world would undergo in just a matter of weeks. Considering how fast those changes happened — and considering the innovations previewed at CES 2021 — there is reason to be optimistic that businesses can continue to pivot rapidly to fast changes with the right leaders on their teams