CEOs navigate compound risks as they juggle the competing demands of sustainable growth, innovation, and leading a purpose-first culture.
Buckle up, business leaders: The age of compound volatility is upon us.
That’s the clear takeaway from the KPMG 2023 U.S. CEO Outlook, set against a backdrop of disruptive risks and seismic structural changes to the U.S. economy that leave CEOs little room for error on business strategy and execution.
The mix of challenges is unprecedented: sticky inflation, energy transition, cyber threats, a still-shifting labor market, geopolitical instability, and more.
Despite that volatility, CEOs remain generally confident in the long-term growth prospects of the U.S. and global economies, but this confidence is more subdued when it comes to growth expectations for their own companies. For example, while 79 percent of the 400 U.S. CEOs in our survey still expect their companies to grow over the next three years, that number is down from 95 percent confidence in 2022.
The vast majority of the leaders we surveyed also remain committed to a purpose-driven business approach, with 83 percent prioritizing a strong ethical culture and nearly three-quarters committed to a more collaborative leadership style.
So what makes CEOs think they can brace for—and embrace—volatility at the same time? A deep dive into the data reveals some key takeaways.
The risks seem to be coming from all directions, as many of the CEOs in our survey noted, with at least a few challenges shaping up as long-term realities. Persistent inflation especially drags on business strategy, but the high cost of capital and continued unpredictability around labor, energy, and emerging technologies further complicate the CEO’s playbook.
Not surprisingly, 8 in 10 U.S. CEOs cite the high cost of living as the top structural risk to growth, followed closely by regulatory demands (77 percent) and disruptive tech (76 percent). Amid these headwinds, CEOs are putting a premium on organizational agility, with more than 7 in 10 saying they have already redirected at least some of their growth strategies to adapt to the myriad challenges. That includes placing an increased emphasis on investments in technologies like generative AI and similar transformational growth opportunities that their companies can influence directly.
CEOs are interested in transformational M&A opportunities with more than half of the CEOs saying they are likely to undertake acquisitions that will have a significant impact on their organization. But 35 percent of these CEOs—reflecting that agile mindset—say they would want to see more stable market conditions before they actually prioritize M&A over organic growth in the near term.
Not surprisingly, 8 in 10 U.S. CEOs cite the high cost of living as the top structural risk to growth.
Findings from the KPMG 2023 CEO Outlook.
CEOs are bullish on emerging technologies like generative AI, citing growth from efficiency and productivity gains as the top anticipated benefits. Seventy-two percent are investing heavily in AI, and 62 percent expect to see ROI from that spend in three to five years—and 21 percent within just one to two years.
Still, most are taking a careful route to implementation. Fully 81 percent say their company’s progress has been delayed by regulatory uncertainty and the still opaque ethical concerns with how AI systems make decisions. Implementation costs and a lack of technical expertise are also significant barriers for many.
For all its promise, though, AI also continues to be double-edged sword when it comes to cybersecurity: 85 percent of U.S. CEOs say that while AI can help detect cyberattacks, it also provides new attack strategies for the growing number of malicious actors. And nearly 3 in 10 of the CEOs say their company is unprepared for a cyber attack—but not for lack of investment.
Opportunity – and risk – of generative AI
Percentage of organizations investing heavily in AI, with 62% expecting return in three to five years.
CEOs who believe AI can help prevent cyberattacks, while acknowledging it also provides new attack strategies.
Finding, nurturing, and retaining talent remains the top operational priority for U.S. CEOs to achieve growth over the next three years, according to our survey, with more than 8 in 10 noting that success for their company depends on having a strong ethical culture.
But the talent challenge isn’t as straightforward as it used to be, buffered by shifting dynamics in the workforce. Exhibit A: U.S. CEOs much prefer the traditional in-person work culture, with 62 percent anticipating a full office return within three years—which is almost double last year’s sentiment. And only 4 percent now believe fully remote is an option, which is down from 20 percent just a year ago.
To soften the blow, 90 percent of CEOs plan to reward employees who return to the office with raises, promotions, and plum assignments. But will that be enough?
Percentage of CEOs who believe fully remote work is an option, down from 20% a year ago.
Given the concerns on general marketplace stability, it’s perhaps logical to assume CEOs would lean toward postponing many environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) initiatives. On the contrary, though, most of the business leaders we surveyed see a potent link between ESG strategies and financial performance, envisioning substantial returns over the next three to five years.
In fact, three-quarters of U.S. CEOs say they have fully embedded ESG into their business as a means of value creation, with 58 percent expecting significant returns in three to five years, and another one-quarter anticipating bottom-line results within two years.
They also recognize the importance of ESG with their customers and image, expecting their company’s commitments in these areas to have a significant influence on customer relationships and brand reputation.
However, the ever-shifting ESG landscape poses challenges too, with some CEOs still feeling unprepared due to swiftly changing regulations, insufficient staffing and expertise, and often hard-to-anticipate stakeholder demands. Amid this complexity, CEOs are reevaluating and recalibrating their ESG approaches, recognizing the need for adaptation as their understanding of the terrain deepens.
Percentage of U.S. CEOs who have fully embedded ESG into their business, with 58% expecting returns in three to five years.
The KPMG 2023 U.S. CEO Outlook provides valuable insights into the minds of business leaders navigating today’s intricate challenges. From geopolitical uncertainties to the ethical dilemmas posed by emerging technologies, CEOs are embracing change with purpose, resilience, and resolve.
To learn more about how they’re balancing competing priorities and maintaining a steadfast dedication to building a sustainable future, read the entire report linked below.
The CEO’s dilemma: innovation or ethics?
CEOs embrace disruptive technologies to drive innovation and growth, but concerns on ethics, security, and sustainability linger.
KPMG 2023 U.S. CEO Outlook
Growth in the Era of Compound Volatility
The flip side of generative AI: Challenges and risks around responsible use
This advanced machine learning technology offers quick and low-cost content creation. It can also expose organizations to IP theft, fraud and reputational damage.