Find out how CEOs’ attitudes and agenda have changed since COVID-19

by Brianna Crandall — September 9, 2020 — As facilities managers (FMs) attempt to make strategic plans for the new reality as the coronavirus pandemic continues, a new report from global professional services firms network KPMG may give them some direction in setting priorities in such areas as office space and remote work.

As a result of COVID-19, chief executive officers (CEOs) of the world’s most influential companies have identified talent risk as one of the most significant challenges to growth, and are examining their wider societal contributions and company purpose. In what is touted as the first study of its kind to measure how CEOs’ priorities and concerns have changed during the global pandemic, KPMG conducted two surveys, one at the onset of the pandemic in January and another in July/August.

The KPMG 2020 CEO Outlook COVID-19 Special Edition finds that the agenda of leaders has radically shifted since the beginning of the year, as existing trends like ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors, flexible working and digital transformation have accelerated. When reflecting on prospects for growth over the next three years, 32% of CEOs are less confident now than they were at the start of the year in the global economy. CEOs, however, are more optimistic about their own country’s growth prospects (45% confident), and more confident again in the resilience of their own business over the coming three years.

Bill Thomas, Global Chairman and CEO, KPMG, commented:

The significant change in CEOs priorities over the past six months is a clear indication that businesses have had to pivot at breakneck speed to deal with the challenges of the pandemic. Business leaders the world over are seeking to manage uncertainty with decisiveness. This crisis has accelerated strategies that were already in place around digital transformation and social responsibility. However, in other areas planning for the future is a lot harder, particularly thinking about future ways of working and problem solving. So it’s perhaps no surprise that CEOs are focused on the importance of talent to sustain and grow any future business.

Key findings

Talent risk rises 11 places, named the largest threat to businesses

In January, CEOs ranked talent risk behind 11 other risks to growth. However, since the start of the pandemic, talent has risen to be named as the most significant threat to their businesses ahead of supply chain and environmental risk.

Personal impact of COVID-19 on CEOs

Four in 10 respondents (39%) have had their health, or the health of one of their family, affected by the virus, and 55% changed their strategic response to the pandemic as a result. Global executives have also been impacted financially, with nearly two-thirds (63%) citing that they’ve made changes to their compensation as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

Digital transformation key to improving operational resilience

CEOs have invested heavily in technology during the lockdown, and they are betting on major dimensions of digital transformation to make their companies more operationally resilient, agile and customer-focused. A majority (80%) of leaders have seen the digital transformation of their businesses accelerating during the pandemic.

The biggest advancements have been in the digital transformation of operations, where 30% say that progress has put them years ahead of where they would have expected to be right now. Two-thirds (67%) of CEOs are likely to put more capital investment into technology than they are people, a figure that hasn’t changed at all since the initial survey.

Increased focus on purpose and ESG

Earlier this year, CEOs said their organizations have a larger role to play in society. Two-thirds (65%) of CEOs said that the public is looking to businesses to fill the void on societal challenges and three-quarters (76%) agreed that as leaders they are personally responsible for change on societal issues.

The pandemic has accelerated global executives’ focus on their roles in society and added further scrutiny on business practices. CEOs feel that the recent developments have made them question if their company purpose meets the standard expected from their stakeholders, with 79% saying that they have had to re-evaluate their organization’s purpose as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. That same majority (79%) saying they feel a stronger emotional connection to their organization’s purpose since the crisis began.

This development has put ESG near the top of the agenda for CEOs, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of leaders have shifted the focus towards the social component of ESG during this period of global uncertainty. Despite the increased emphasis towards societal issues, many sectors are at risk from climate change. A large group of CEOs (65%) recognize that managing this risk will be key to determining their success, specifically whether they can keep their jobs over the next five years.

Thomas concluded:

The COVID-19 crisis is redefining what good business leadership looks like. It is making demands of CEOs that few people could have imagined just months ago. Environmental considerations remain important, but societal impact is now much higher on the agenda. CEOs are more connected to their organization’s purpose, their reason for being, and are using it to guide their business decisions through continuing unpredictable times.

The study included qualitative interviews with the CEOs of: Hellenic Petroleum, Kyocera Corporation, NatWest Group (formerly RBS), Thomson Reuters, Salsano Group, Verizon Communications and Zurich Insurance.

The KPMG CEO Outlook provides an in-depth three-year outlook from thousands of global executives on enterprise and economic growth.

KPMG initially surveyed 1,300 CEOs in January and February, before many key markets were beginning to feel the full impact of the pandemic crisis. KPMG conducted a follow-up survey of 315 chief executives July 6 to August 5 to understand how CEO thinking has evolved during the crisis. In both instances, all respondents have annual revenue over US$500 million, and a third of the companies surveyed have more than US$10 billion in annual revenue.

The January/February survey included leaders from 11 key markets (Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Spain, UK and US) and 11 key industry sectors (asset management, automotive, banking, consumer and retail, energy, infrastructure, insurance, life sciences, manufacturing, technology, and telecommunications). The recently conducted follow-up survey included CEOs across the industries mentioned above and from eight key markets (Australia, Canada, China, France, Italy, Japan, UK and US).

To view additional information about the study please visit the KPMG 2020 CEO Outlook: COVID-19 Special Edition: Executive Summary page on the KPMG website.

US focus

KPMG LLP, the US audit, tax and advisory firm and independent member firm of KPMG International Cooperative, released US numbers for the study, with mostly minor variations.

Employee work experience since COVID-19

KPMG US also released a survey in August that explores the work experience of US employees since the onset of COVID-19. Improved productivity, quality of work, and work-life balance received high scores, but opportunities to support employees with mental health and to address racial inequality were revealed

KPMG International is a global network of professional services firms providing audit, tax and advisory services. KPMG operates in 147 countries and territories, with more than 219,000 people working in member firms around the world. The independent member firms are affiliated with KPMG International Cooperative, a Swiss entity.