Digital-first CEOs Reveal the Future of Leadership in a Virtual World, Research Shows

As Workforces and Customers Turn Remote, CEOs Leading High-Growth Companies Sprang Into Action to Increase Visibility, Engage Audiences and Lead While in Isolation, SutherlandGold Research Finds

SAN FRANCISCO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–SutherlandGold, a leading full-service creative communications agency for changemakers, today released their CEO Scorecard for Remote Leaders, which showed that a new generation of digital-first CEOs are defining what remote leadership looks like in a virtual world.

“We found that all of the CEOs have a unique set of skills that are necessary for leading in virtual environments,” said Rachelle Spero, EVP of SutherlandGold. “They understand the importance of context, brevity, transparency, and relevancy when engaging in real-time. They have a digital mindset, are fluent in data, and hyper-visual. More importantly, they all adapt quickly to changes in the market.”

The study tracked the visibility and engagement of CEOs leading high-growth companies from Fortune’s 2019 40 Under 40 award. An online survey of CEOs leading startup companies was also conducted to understand what future leaders prioritize when it comes to their remote audience engagement strategies. The research uncovered five major insights:

  • Event cancelations hit CEOs’ visibility hard – We found 7 of the 10 leaders relied primarily on speaking at events to elevate their visibility and share their thought leadership. Once the pandemic hit, 50 percent of the CEOs we tracked embraced virtual events but did not significantly increase the visibility of their original thinking via reports, articles, blog posts, videos, or podcasts.
  • Engagement amped up immediately on Twitter – As soon as the pandemic was announced, 70 percent of the 10 CEOs with Twitter accounts increased both their follower count and added to their total number of tweets. Having an active social media presence proved to be an invaluable advantage in times of crisis. Leaders who transparently and consistently communicate the state of their business are able to build trust, loyalty, and visibility for their employees and brand.
  • Yet LinkedIn was forgotten – Surprisingly, only 2 out of the 10 CEOs we tracked contributed articles or engaged employees, customers, or investors directly via LinkedIn. This is an open opportunity, as LinkedIn is the #1 professional network for B2B companies, and approximately 80 percent of the 100+ CEOs we surveyed preferred LinkedIn for thought leadership engagement.
  • Video helps to drive conversations, inspire action, and influence thinking – CEOs leading conversations all had established platforms to share their brand news, product/services, opinions, and ideas, but only one out of the ten CEOs successfully leveraged video to spark conversations that influenced new thinking about the AI space.
  • The influential are now even more influential – Only 4 out of the 10 CEOs we tracked were consistently mentioned by the media in 2019, with these 4 averaging 100 media mentions per month. The most visible CEO had strong media coverage pre-pandemic and saw a 76 percent increase after the pandemic was announced in March.

“The remote workforce is going from a temporary phenomenon of this pandemic to a more permanent fixture of American work life,” said Lesley Gold, CEO, and Co-founder of SutherlandGold. “Regardless of the challenge, great leaders will find the will and the way to connect with and inspire the audiences that matter most.”

The 10 CEOs leading high-growth companies for the CEO Scorecard include Henrique Dubugras (Brex), Michael Mignano (Spotify formerly Anchor), Joy Buolamwini (Algorithmic Justice League), Trevor Martin (Mammoth Biosciences), Carl Pei (OnePlus), Alyson Friedensohn (Modern Health), Keller Rinaudo (Zipline), Peng Zhao (Citadel Securities), Bill Liu (Royole), and Jessie Wisdom (Humu).

Survey Methodology

Before the pandemic began, SutherlandGold was tracking ten influential CEOs from Fortune’s 40 Under 40 to see how they raised their visibility and engaged their audiences across channels. We selected ten CEOs from high-growth companies specifically for their work in the business, healthcare, and technology sectors. We intentionally excluded executives from larger companies (like Apple or Google), celebrities, athletes, and politicians in order to maintain a narrow pool, removing the possibility of outliers that would skew our data. The ten leaders were then individually scored using SutherlandGold’s CEO Scorecard to evaluate business performance, visibility in the media, thought leadership, and social media engagement.

During the pandemic, we also conducted an online survey answered by 125 CEOs leading startup companies with 50 to 1000 employees in technology, healthcare, biotech, pharmaceuticals, and banking/financial industries. We set out to learn about their visibility and engagement efforts by asking how much time they commit, what resources they use, and which metrics they value in measuring business success.

About SutherlandGold

SutherlandGold Group is a creative branding and communications agency that marries a human-centric audience-first approach with the discipline of data to craft stories that move people to feel, think, and do things differently. SutherlandGold Group works with US-based C-Suite executives at companies of every size and stage of growth who share in our values of passion, empathy, and curiosity to deliver products that change the way we live, work, and play.

The firm has worked with more than 200 high growth companies over almost two decades, helping more than 20 achieve IPOs and others raise billions in funding. Clients include Brex, Figure Technologies,, Carbon Health, PicsArt, and BMW iVentures. The company has offices in San Francisco and New York City.


Marisa Steck

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