• Stefan Pfister, Leadership |

The coronavirus crisis has prompted CEOs to make fundamental changes to their agendas. This is one of the insights offered by this year’s CEO Outlook, KPMG’s survey of more than 1,000 CEOs of the world’s largest organizations. To give proper due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the survey conducted immediately prior to the onset of the crisis was followed up by a second survey in the summer.

Major shift in priorities

When asked to name the biggest risks and their corresponding priorities, one thing stands out: concern regarding the availability of suitable talent. While the search for talent was at the bottom of global agendas prior to the pandemic (traditionally higher in Switzerland), it surged to the top during the lockdown and even surpassed climate change.

On the other hand, our way of dealing with the crisis has opened up new opportunities for talent searches as well: Remote, location-independent working has upended the rigid idea that employees have to work in an office and live in close proximity as a result. We’ve now seen that remote working works well and that the pool of potentially available specialists – even while still ensuring compliance with all regulations, of course – has grown enormously, particularly in the service sector.

That’s great news for these organizations. It’s also unsettling news for many workers in high-wage countries like Switzerland. So watch out: Anybody advocating too loudly for months-long or even permanent work from home offices should always also consider the extent to which they are biting the hand that feeds them. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” takes on an entirely new meaning in this context. Moreover, those in the electorate who think they can artificially usher in a shortage of qualified (and other) workers by voting in favor of the Limitation Initiative on 27 September, which would in turn benefit Switzerland’s existing workforce, are also putting a great deal at risk.

Supply chains: from cluster risk to competitive advantage

In the wake of delivery bottlenecks during the pandemic, some of which posed an existential threat to these organizations, reorganizing supply chains has become the new number two on CEOs’ agendas. Enterprises are trying to diversify wherever possible to eliminate identified cluster risks. But that’s not all: More agile supply chains should also help them carve out new competitive advantages.

Climate change remains a central issue

Two other topics that had already topped CEOs’ agendas last year continue to top the list: the (re-)nationalization of key portions of the economy and legislation as well as climate change. The latter has been recognized as a central problem all around the globe and companies are currently trying to ensure that the climate-friendly changes made during the lockdown are here to stay (video conferences instead of air travel, etc.). Concerns regarding environmentally and socially sustainable development, currently known by the acronym “ESG” (Environment, Social and Governance), have prompted attention to (temporarily?) shift from the “E” to the “S” component or, more specifically, from climate- to health-related concerns.

This shift in focus is also seen in the answers provided by more than a third of the respondents who have had their health, or the health of one of their family members, affected by the pandemic and have adapted their companies’ strategic response to pandemics as a result.

Another push for digitalization

Not only did the way governments and society as a whole reacted to the pandemic give digitalization another across-the-board push, it also broke up set-in-stone structures and paved the way for new working models. Right now, everybody’s talking about the new (primarily digital) forms of collaboration, an insight also reflected in the CEO Outlook. But I’m convinced: The changes – which are positive on the whole – will be very extensive, affect each and every one of us and have repercussions in the areas of taxes, insurance, labor law, transportation, energy, healthcare, education and society, plus a host of others.

The search for purpose

Many of the global CEOs surveyed feel that declining trust in governments needs to be offset by more intense corporate engagement. From a Swiss perspective, I dare to question this presumed loss of confidence: The decisive action taken by the Federal Council – at least during the first phase of the pandemic – probably significantly boosted the confidence of broad segments of the population in our government. This confidence hasn’t even been dented by the increasingly confusing patchwork of cantonal and, in some cases, even municipal, rules. In my opinion, the fact that society’s expectations of companies are growing substantially, even in Switzerland, and that CEOs are increasingly approving this new mentality, is one of the reasons why so many companies have become more willing to consent to the Federal Council’s and Parliament’s sensible counterproposal to the radical Corporate Responsibility Initiative, which will be put to the vote on 29 November.

One valuable finding – and one that is conducive to confidence in the economy – is that very many CEOs also have a sense of personal responsibility with respect to future social trends. The Black Lives Matter movement that was set into motion in the US has heavily influenced the results of this global survey, without a doubt. After years of doing business in our country, however, I firmly believe that the vast majority of Swiss CEOs are keenly aware of and embrace their corporate responsibility.

In the meantime, a majority of the CEOs surveyed view their organizations’ purpose as being at the heart of their activities. Only 24% still focus exclusively on shareholder value, while 22% actually aspire to improve society as a whole.

Confident about the economic outlook

In terms of expected economic performance, even despite all the uncertainties in this pandemic year, one thing seems to hold true: the more tangible an environment presents itself to CEOs from a regional and industry-specific point of view, the more confident their estimates become. Accordingly, only 32% are confident about the growth prospects for the global economy compared to 45% and even 55% when it comes to economic growth at the national or sector level. When asked about the growth prospects of their own company, however, 67% of respondents expressed confidence. Coupled with SECO’s latest economic assessment that the economy has recovered even more swiftly since the end of the lockdown than expected in the June forecast, this should at least give rise to a bit of cautious optimism for the near future.

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