Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? When you survey more than 5,000 of the most influential people in business and they demonstrate “record levels of optimism” in a post-pandemic world, will they be hailed with amazing predictive powers if their vision is correct, or is it the confluence of their power and what they say that will tip the scales for the better and makes their predictions come true?
Or, are there communal behaviours that successful, modern CEOs have that allow for the answer to the above-posed riddle to be found in a bit of both possibilities?
We would like you to keep all of this food for thought in mind as we take a close look at the results of our CEO Survey Report 2021 – Luxembourg Findings.
And honestly, while we all ponder the chicken and the egg, we can’t say we know the definitive answer to that question. What we do know is that on 11 March 2021, a year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, CEOs voiced record levels of optimism in the global economic recovery, with 76% of global business leaders predicting that economic growth will improve in 2021.
Three quarters of global CEOs predict a return to growth in 2021
For most of us, this optimism is music to our fatigued ears. Why? Because we are all hungry for something positive after having collectively gone through a year dominated by negative headlines while trapped in confinement (and hey, we are in the first world, there is a much darker side to all of this).
But we can only talk about our own experiences. Forget about the fear of the illness itself, we have additionally been bombarded with news about job losses, business closures, people dying, and global unrest with the media constantly hammering on us the idea that there is only one thing that is certain (in the midst of uncertainty): the world forward will be different from the one we look back on. For instance, around here, we heard several people saying they could barely stand to hear the phrase the “new normal” once more, and that is an obvious symptom of tiredness. The media loves negative headlines and thrives on people fearing change.
Just looking at the illness, while the corona disease itself has typically attacked the older and more vulnerable demographics of our populations, its collateral damage has proved a heavy load to bear for our young people.
In September 2020, there was an excellent blog published by the London School of Economics which talked about this “new pessimism” and proposed that, “ COVID-19 has made young people lose faith in their own agency”, which is a very worrying trend indeed. And this was more than half a year ago!
What is important to point out is that it is youngsters’ “outlook” and their “perception” that is pessimistic, not necessarily their reality. “Young people, especially those about to start university or get a job, have a gloomy and newly pessimistic outlook on the future,” continues the article. “This is not consistent with research from pre-COVID-19 times, which usually finds young people optimistic about their own futures.”
So in the same time period we have a high rate of pessimism in young people but a rise in optimism in our CEOs? Because more optimistic they have proved to be.
CEO optimism by the numbers
The polling results demonstrated that the percentage of CEOs expressing confidence in growth rose from 22% in 2020 and 42% in 2019 to 76% in 2021. This is the highest level of optimism since the survey started asking this question in a decade. Colour us slightly astonished (but thankful).
The above figures come from PwC’s 24th Annual Global CEO Survey, which this year asked questions to 5,050 CEOs in 100 countries and territories over January and February 2021.
Herein lies one of the potential clues to the more optimistic predictions of our CEOs yet. They have been through crises before. And, according to this Harvard Review article, What Sets Successful CEOs Apart , above and beyond the experience and natural qualities for which they would have risen to the role of CEO, are four behaviours: their ability to decide with speed and conviction, the way they engage for impact, they way they adapt proactively in an increasingly rapidly changing environment, and their ability to deliver reliably, with the inherent insinuation that, to be able to do this, they adhere to a key practice of setting realistic expectations up front.
What does this mean? For us, it means we can take some considerable comfort in what their optimism is saying and what it means for the future because it carries the weight of their knowledge, experience, and is based to varying degrees on the four CEO behaviours we just mentioned.
Our polled CEOs have been, perhaps not exactly here, but somewhere like it before. So we should indeed lend them an ear. And they are also looking forward, with proactive eyes to a new future, based on realistic expectations and deep knowledge of the challenges ahead. It’s fair to state that they see differently than us, especially than the generations just starting their lives.
As this strategy+business article published recently put it so eloquently, “When the pandemic started, people who have lived through a few crises before reminded us, “This too shall pass,”. Even though it may have been hard to imagine given the extent of COVID-19’s damage worldwide, there’s a sense that their prediction was right. But this isn’t to say that we will be — or indeed, would even want to be — back to where we were in 2019.”
The year of reinvention
According to our global CEOs, for business, 2021 will be a year of reinvention. With all the negative impact we have been focussing on, could not reinvention be a positive thing in many ways?
Yes, COVID and its aftermath has been a catalyst for change, but some of that change was already coming. It will now come faster, that’s it. And also, some of that change —like the accelerated integration of ESG and what this means for business and society— could definitely be change for good.
For a lot of us, especially our young people, this pandemic world has been a scary situation. So if the message of our polled CEOs is that they are embracing tomorrow with optimism (the egg) and if this optimistic view of so many influential people might have a positive forward effect on business (the chicken), then do we need to solve the riddle after all?
“After a year of human tragedy and extensive economic hardship, it is encouraging to see that the people responsible for making investment decisions and hiring staff are feeling cautiously optimistic about the year ahead. CEOs have faith that growth will return, boosted by the rapid development of vaccines and their rollout in many parts of the world,” said Bob Moritz, Chairman of the PwC Network.
So, what did our Luxembourg CEOs have to say?
One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, we surveyed 5,050 CEOs around the world about their plans to respond to new threats, transform their operating model and create a more sustainable future.
PwC has surveyed business leaders for its Global CEO Survey annually over the past 24 years. PwC Luxembourg takes part in this unique initiative every two years as a way to position Luxembourg on the international stage and to provide more specific insights from —and for— local CEOs. This report combines the global findings with Luxembourg specific insights in an attempt to not only benchmark Luxembourg with respect to the other territories, but also to compare internally the forces that drive the country’s growth agenda.
CEO Survey Report 2021 – Luxembourg Findings
Looking ahead, CEOs are optimistic about the recovery, but concerns surrounding over-regulation remain prevalent for Luxembourg CEOs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has enhanced the need to address cybersecurity and has made digitalisation a necessity to survive. Also, ESG will take centre stage in Luxembourg as 75% of the CEOs plan to increase their long-term investment towards sustainability and ESG initiatives.
Finally, upskilling will play a pivotal role in ensuring that the current workforce does not experience dramatic disruptions as a consequence of the accelerated digitalisation.
Luxembourg CEOs are showing mounting confidence regarding the rate and scale of the global economic recovery, with 79% of them believing global economic growth will improve in 2021. This level of optimism is in line with global CEOs’ sentiment: 76% of global CEOs are optimistic about the global economic recovery.
Cybersecurity concerns have risen from sixth to second place in Luxembourg, with 60% of the country’s CEOs extremely concerned about cyber threats. Cybersecurity is also the 2nd major threat globally.
Luxembourg CEOs are very specifically concerned with over-regulation, with 63% of the country’s CEOs voicing concerns that over-regulation may jeopardise the growth of their organisation —about 20% more than at the European and global levels.
23% of our sample declared that an increased tax burden could lead them to reassess their geographical footprint. In Western Europe, 28% of CEOs would consider this course of action, and 31% globally.
Luxembourg CEOs plan to pursue organic growth with the launch of new products and services as the main driver (instead of growing by acquisition).
ESG is unquestionably an area of investment: 75% of Luxembourg CEOs plan to increase their long-term investment towards sustainability and ESG initiatives, compared to “only” 60% at the global level, and 68% in Western Europe.
Digitalisation will also be a key driver of investments: 85% of CEOs in the Grand Duchy are planning to increase their long-term investments in digital transformation over the next three years. Digitalisation is also on the agenda of global and European CEOs.
52% of Luxembourg CEOs plan to refocus their strategy on productivity through automation and technology (compared to 36% at the global level) which may pose a challenge to the workforce structure.
Finally, upskilling is very high on CEOs’ minds; 42% of them recognise the necessity of making continuous investments in their workforce to develop their skills and adaptability. Upskilling is considered to be a government duty in Luxembourg: 72% of our sample are leaning towards upskilling being a government priority compared to 62% of Western European CEOs and 52% of Global CEOs.
A nuanced optimism
While our CEOs largely hold a positive outlook for the future, it has to be pointed out that this optimism is nuanced —tainted with shades of concern on the emergence or exacerbation of certain threats. In our modern age, CEOs know they have to adapt their businesses and deliver sustained outcomes in a rapidly changing environment so as to emerge strong, resilient and able to withstand future shocks.
We would like to give the last words to John Parkhouse, CEO & Senior Partner, PwC Luxembourg, who we believe embraces all four behaviours of the successful CEO. He wrote in the closing of the Luxembourg Findings report, looking back at the past and out into a new future:
“Overall, the pandemic’s dual role as an accelerator of transformation and amplifier of disruptive forces is the thread that runs through our 24th CEO survey, and our results show that economic recovery is expected soon. As the pandemic continues to test our resilience and capability to find growth opportunities in challenged and uncertain times we offer to you Thomas A. Edison’s advice: Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to success is always to try just one more time.”
John is talking about business and the economy but the message is a universal one. So embrace a little optimism. It feels good. And if you see a young person who is down, try and pass that message on to them. They might really need it.
Luxembourg has proved to be resilient in the face of last year’s pandemic and our CEOs’ optimism is well aligned with macroeconomic indicators regarding the current and projected state of our local economy. Given that the GDP decline in the EURO area was much higher than in Luxembourg, the region is poised to make a bigger economic comeback, but this is not to take away from the fact that Luxembourg is making a solid recovery and that the labour market has held up relatively well during the crisis.