Today’s CEO faces unprecedented challenges like never before and is tasked with navigating choppy waters.
Amid global uncertainty caused by a potential recession and on the back of war in Ukraine and disruption caused by COVID-19, it can feel overwhelming for even the most experienced leaders.
A positive horizon?
Despite this, consulting giants EY has discovered reason for optimism in its January 2023 CEO Outlook Pulse survey which includes 390 responses from CEOs across Europe. While the survey found 98% of respondents are indeed expecting a global recession, the majority of European CEOs (52%) anticipate it to be temporary and not a persistent one. These figures are a greater percentage than CEOs worldwide (48%) who point to more long-term optimism for the global economy among European CEOs.
According to the survey, 47% of European respondents believe this recession will be different from previous slowdowns. The recent crisis is more driven by myriad geopolitical challenges and an ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic compared with previous recessions primarily as a result of financial and credit market factors. Many CEOs are aware of this difference and acknowledge the necessity for new and sustainable approaches that build resilience in uncertain times.
In EY’s last survey in October 2022, ongoing pandemic-related concerns such as supply chain issues were the most important topics. However, since then supply chain pressures have eased to some extent with data from S&P Global Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) showing improvement. Only 32% of European CEOs now cite supply chains as the key issue which is down from 41% in October. Given inflationary pressures and the upward movement in interest rates, European CEOs are increasingly focusing on the policies and steps they believe European governments should take to help businesses mitigate the downturn.
About 35% of European respondents, in comparison to 32% globally, consider uncertain monetary policy and increasing cost of capital as the biggest challenge to growth. With inflation beginning to decline in November 2022 after 17 months of upward trajectory, CEOs are closely following central bank activity for potential course changes.
A strategy change
In response to the current recession, EU policymakers are considering more dovish economic recovery proposals instead of top-down austerity rules seen during the sovereign debt crises a decade ago. This includes rethinking debt rules to help countries navigate this downturn. Alongside this, EU governments now face pressure on how to handle the discontent of people protesting against the rising cost of living crisis and questions still remain on how extensively they will intervene. In particular, governments are reluctant to pursue austerity measures as a result of protests from the crisis 10 years ago. Meanwhile, for CEOs, financing will continue to be a challenge as a result of increased capital costs that are set to persist which disrupted growth plans.
European CEOs have learned from previous financial crises and recognise that it is essential to think of new and sustainable strategies to capitalise on the opportunities.
What is the way forward?
According to EY, there are five directives which are worth exploring over the next few years.
Investing in operations
European CEOs identify investing internally to boost operations as extremely important. Risk isn’t only about extraordinary events; day-to-day operational failures can also lead to losses, regulatory action and reductions in share prices. Operations such as finance, accounting and supply chain have emerged as the top priority area of investment for European CEOs (41%).
Recognising disruption and accelerating digital transformation
Amid ongoing global pressure to embrace new technologies and a digital transformation, COVID-19 further accelerated a trend toward digitalisation. Around 38% of European CEOs (in line with 37% globally) are looking to invest in digital transformation, data and technology to emerge stronger from this downturn.
Developing a strong environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy
Businesses need to ensure ESG processes are moved to the centre of business strategy. Sustainability, including net zero and other environmental issues, as well as societal priorities, is one of the key areas that European CEOs identify as a need for more investment.
Despite the recession, the labour market remains tight in Europe. European CEOs are weighing cost management options, with 37% considering a move to contract employment and 38% planning on reducing learning and development investments. About one third are also considering a restructuring of their workforce compared with global and Americas CEOs (36% and 42%) considering the same approach.
Looking ahead, portfolio rebalancing is expected to be a key theme as CEOs will be compelled to make bold decisions regarding their business portfolio. During a recession, companies must critically assess what their core businesses are, what their focus should be and where they can create value by spinning out or selling non-core assets. Some 93% of European CEOs consider prioritising restructuring opportunities as an important initiative in the next six months.