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24th Annual Global CEO Survey - US findings

Conducted in January and February 2021, the 24th Annual Global CEO Survey explores the views of 5,050 chief executives around the world on how they are reinventing their companies to mitigate global disruptions, such as the impact of COVID-19, and ensuring sustainable growth.

US CEOs look to realign to a post-pandemic world

CEOs in the US expect a post-pandemic recovery that will stretch the boundaries of what’s possible for their organizations in an increasingly digital world. As a result, they’re focused on expanding product and service offerings as well as pursuing new M&A deals to help accelerate access to talent and technologies. They’re also investing in cybersecurity and digital technologies. With 88% of US leaders anticipating an improvement in global economic growth over the next 12 months, half (52%) also expect to expand headcount over the next year to capitalize on emerging opportunities for business growth.

The pandemic’s dual role as accelerator of transformation and amplifier of disruptive forces is the thread that runs through our 24th Annual Global CEO Survey. Although their confidence in their own company’s revenue prospects has rebounded, CEOs are anxious, too: about cyber threats (71% “extremely concerned”), regulatory policy uncertainty (51%) and pandemics and other health crises (46%). In a sign of a greater focus on trust and transparency, CEOs in the US are planning to enhance disclosures.

Here are three topics that are top of mind for CEOs in 2021:

“We’re now looking at expansion,” says Fender Musical Instruments CEO Andy Mooney. “... I’m very optimistic that we will get significant growth again in 2021 and beyond.”

Growth strategies

US CEOs target changes to products and services as well as acquisitions to fuel top-line new growth

US CEOs plan to accelerate investments in capabilities that will help their organizations thrive long after the crisis. Survey findings show they’ll focus on two key actions:

Acquiring capabilities through M&A

Over half (57%) of US CEOs plan to pursue new mergers and acquisitions in the next 12 months, compared with 38% of CEOS globally. Even as US deal values continue to soar, buyers with ample access to capital haven’t been discouraged from acquiring capabilities they need to succeed in the future. Here at PwC, we expect deals to recover faster than the overall US economy. 

In fact, 26% of US respondents who ranked new M&A at the top of their list to drive growth said their primary motivation is to acquire capabilities, including different technologies. Meanwhile, 31% said they plan to pursue new M&A to expand or diversify their organization’s product or service mix.

Leverage technologies to develop new relationships with customers

Innovation also drives growth, and most US CEOs plan to connect with new and existing customers by developing new offerings: 63% said they plan to launch a new product or service in the next 12 months, compared with 56% of CEOs globally. 

As executives make investment decisions, they’ll need to set clear plans for what they want to achieve and how adoption of different technologies, including artificial intelligence, cloud and virtual reality, could impact operations, the workforce and the overall business.



Top priorities for US CEOs to drive growth over the next 12 months


US
Global

Pursue organic growth
%
%
Seek operational efficiencies
%
%
Launch a new product or service
%
%
Pursue new M&A
%
%

Q: Which of the following activities, if any, are you planning in the next 12 months in order to drive growth?
Source: 24th Annual Global CEO Survey
Base: 260 US executives, 1,779 global executives (weighted proportionate to country nominal GDP), January to February 2021

“... We would create a paper file, and then a few days later a person in the field would show up. Today, it is digitized all the way through,” says USAA CEO Wayne Peacock. “Now we’re applying the capability to bring photos and images into the equation, and then use those images to calculate the cost of damage rather than having a human do it in person.”

Planned investments

Raising ambitions on cybersecurity for unimpeded growth and innovation

Almost half (48%) of US CEOs surveyed plan to increase their investments in cybersecurity and data privacy by up to 9% over the next three years, and 30% plan to increase investments by 10% or more. Importantly, 42% ranked cyber and data privacy second among 11 areas of impact and value that they said they should do more to measure threats. 

This continues a trend we’ve seen among C-suite executives: reallocating investments into cyber and privacy as companies raise their digital ambitions. 

After years of escalating worry about cyber threats posing the most significant risk to their growth, US CEOs are finally putting resources behind better management of cyber risks. In the latest survey, 71% of US CEOs said they are “extremely concerned” about cyber threats—ahead of pandemics and other health crises (46%).  

The share of US CEOs (30%) increasing cyber investments by 10% or more lags the share of those increasing digital bets by double digits (43%). 

But CEOs can improve their cybersecurity posture while controlling costs. They can empower their chief security officers to make a difference. In fact, chief information security officers (CISOs) at leading companies are spearheading transformation in cybersecurity by resetting cyber strategy; rethinking cyber budgets; modernizing tech such as zero trust, cloud security, and automation; building resilience; upskilling and augmenting security teams with managed services.

CEOs can rally their boards of directors to raise their cyber fluency and exercise informed oversight. They can also engage actively in partnerships with the federal government to help counter cyber and privacy attacks.



One-third of US CEOs plan to increase investments in cybersecurity by double digits


Increase moderately by 3% to 9%
Increase significantly by 10% or more
No change

Digital transformation
%
%
%
Cybersecurity and data privacy
%
%
%
Initiatives to realize cost efficiencies
%
%
%

Q: How do you plan to change your long-term investments in the following areas over the next three years, as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?
Source: 24th Annual Global CEO Survey
Base: 260 US executives, January to February 2021
Building trust

US CEOs want to handle ESG disclosures differently in the year ahead

Maintaining the trust in business that was built during the pandemic will be important to leaders as they look for ways to become more agile and resilient. Disclosure approaches will continue to play a part. More than a third of US CEOs surveyed said they’re adopting new environmental, social and governance (ESG) disclosure standards (37%) and/or enhancing reviews of their disclosures (35%). Policy and regulation, too, are likely to shift US public companies toward standardized ESG reporting. Consider the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announcement that it will provide updated guidance on climate change reporting in 2021, after releasing guidance on human capital disclosures last fall.   

More than a quarter of companies (28%) are increasing investments in technology and automation, getting their organizations ready to produce investor-grade data by enhancing their systems, processes and internal controls. Moreover, 17% of US business leaders are also enhancing staff skills and capacity to support enhanced disclosures. 

Sustainability reporting is not new. In 2019, 90% of the companies in the S&P 500 index issued sustainability reports, up from about 20% in 2011. What’s different today is the demand for more consistent, comparable and reliable information on ESG issues, particularly climate risk and diversity and inclusion (D&I). As investors, regulators and consumers assess the impact of ESG on long-term financial performance, here are three important moves CEOs can make in 2021: 

  1. CEOs can step up engagement with policymakers in a year in which the Biden administration will look for ways to mark progress on racial equity and environmental goals. This includes contributing to better standards and disclosures. Bear in mind that regulators are likely to leverage existing policy frameworks already backed by the business community, such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) that’s supported by more than 1,500 companies.

  2. CEOs can tell a clear diversity and inclusion ESG story about their business, acknowledging gaps and communicating progress. CEOs in pursuit of growth have the opportunity to show how their business and society can mutually benefit from ESG investments. 

  3. CEOs can encourage business to drive meaningful insights from ESG data. ESG is not just about risks and reporting but also generating opportunities from new products and services and from operational efficiencies.



US CEOs planning changes to respond to rising investor interest in ESG


Adopt new disclosure standards
%
Invest in technology and automation for data collection
%
Increase staff capacity to support disclosures
%
Enhance reviews of disclosures (i.e. disclosure committee approval, internal audit testing)
%
We don’t plan to make changes
%
Don’t know
%

Q: Within the next 12 months, which of the following changes does your organization plan to make in response to increased pressure from investors to disclose environmental, social or governance (ESG) factors affecting your business?
Source: 24th Annual Global CEO Survey
Base: 260 US executives, January to February 2021

Bottom line

  • Rethink how your organization can grow years from now. Be strategic, and consider acquiring different technologies, talent and capabilities your business will need as your industry evolves.

  • As your organization raises its digital ambitions, proactively invest in measures to strengthen systems and data.

  • With investors increasingly considering the environmental, social and governance impacts of their decisions, ESG is not just about risks and reporting for companies. It’s also an opportunity for CEOs to expand their organization’s longer-term growth prospects.

Global CEOs' prospects for growth in 2021

Rising chief executive confidence is a theme across the globe. See data trends across the territories.

View the key Global findings

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Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan

US Chair and Senior Partner, PwC US

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