As environmental, financial and societal pressures converge, today’s leaders must solve a new equation.
As we near the two-year mark of the pandemic, the global economy has rebounded from the depths of mid-2020. The IMF projects global GDP to grow 4.9% in 2022, a downtick from the 5.9% growth expected in 2021, but still formidable. The 4,446 CEOs from 89 countries and territories who responded to our 25th Annual Global CEO Survey display optimism about continued economic resilience.
Yet threats, uncertainties and tensions abound. The survey was in the field during the COP26 conference in Scotland, which convened world leaders to try to prevent the worst effects of climate change. PwC experts who attended were both impressed by executives’ commitment to rapid progress and aware that the captains of industry in Glasgow were a self-selected group that came prepared to take action. The question of how to bring others along looms large. Then, just two weeks after our survey closed, news of the Omicron variant reverberated around the world, raising fresh questions about the course of the pandemic and about society’s ability to continue the slow climb to normalcy.
Our survey findings reflect these and other tensions. For example, just 22% of survey respondents have made net-zero commitments (though the largest companies in our sample are further along). CEOs are most worried about the potential for a cyberattack or macroeconomic shock to undermine the achievement of their company’s financial goals—the same goals that most executive compensation packages are still tied to. And they are less concerned about challenges, like climate change and social inequality, that appear to pose smaller immediate threats to revenue.
But our survey also provides a glimpse of what is possible when we reimagine the status quo. A case in point: the power of trust. We found that highly trusted companies are more likely to have made net-zero commitments and to have tied their CEO’s compensation to nonfinancial outcomes, such as employee engagement scores and gender diversity in the workforce. Correlation is not causation, and we’ll continue to explore these results. But at first blush, they suggest a relationship between trust and the ability to drive change—a means of moving beyond short-term, “it’s the next leader’s problem” thinking.
It’s an apt finding to spotlight as we commemorate our 25th year documenting CEO sentiment toward and reactions to transformative trends. During the dot-com bubble in 1998, we talked to chief executives about technology, from their personal use of the internet to the future of e-commerce; in 2003, we tracked the rise of corporate governance and enterprise risk management in the wake of financial scandal. We’ve also surveyed CEOs in moments of crisis—in 2008, as the global financial system collapsed, and last year, as we approached the one-year mark of the pandemic—to gauge the impact on strategy and growth.
The challenges facing CEOs today are no less daunting. Increasingly, these leaders need to create sustained outcomes for multiple stakeholders whose interests are not always aligned. Yet the imperative to take decisive action has perhaps never been as strong. Business as usual isn’t mitigating the climate crisis or bridging the socioeconomic divide. The results of our 25th Annual Global CEO Survey lay these truths bare—and underscore the need for bold leadership to unite us as global citizens and problem solvers.
In aggregate, CEO optimism has remained stable, and high. When we surveyed chief executives in October and November of 2021, 77% said they expect global economic growth to improve during the year ahead, an uptick of one percentage point from our previous survey (conducted in January and February of 2021) and the highest figure on record since 2012, when we began asking CEOs how they felt about the economy’s potential.
Although it is unclear how the Omicron variant will affect CEOs’ optimism, today’s headlines emphasise the asymmetrical nature of the world’s pandemic recovery, which our survey results also reflect. CEOs in Brazil, China, Germany and the United States report feeling less optimistic than they were a year ago that growth rates are poised to increase, whereas those in India, Japan and the UK are even more optimistic than they were early last year. These differences may simply reflect where CEOs see themselves in the economic cycle. China and the US, for example, rebounded ahead of the rest of the world and are now experiencing growing pains in the form of inflation, real estate bubbles and supply chain disruptions. Both countries are also confronting labour shortages. In China, shifting demographics and structural unemployment are creating a growing gap; in the US, headlines about the “great resignation” and early retirement predominate.
Consult the full survey at https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/ceo-agenda/ceosurvey/2022.html.