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The public have more in common with CEOs than you might think

Over the years, the issue of public trust has been climbing steadily up the agenda of global CEOs. Indeed, it was one of the biggest risers on the list of possible threats to business growth in our 20thCEO Survey, with 58% admitting that the deterioration of trust in business was either somewhat or extremely concerning.

In light of this increased emphasis on trust, we decided that for this year’s survey we needed to learn the opinions of the public – as well as CEOs – on issues such as growth, jobs and technologies. So we asked 5,351 members of the public, in 22 countries, the same questions that were answered by the 1,379 CEOs that we polled. The interviews were conducted in December 2016 using an online survey of global consumers.

Since both consumers and CEOs experienced a tumultuous year in 2016, I was surprised and also a little worried to discover that a higher proportion of consumers were more optimistic than business leaders about the economic outlook of their country. Over a third (34%) of people felt that their national economy would improve over the next year, compared with 29% of CEOs. However, in our most recent confidence check CEO’s confidence in their organisation’s short term growth prospects is up in the first half of 2017.

But, most interestingly, was the different public view on growth itself.  More than half of the consumers we polled were not convinced that economic growth matters that much to them or their family’s well-being.  This leads me to wonder why governments feel so under pressure to deliver it.  I happened to spot a new book by Lorenzo Fioramonti from the University of Pretoria this week on this emerging area of research.

Although, for the most part, consumers and CEOs don’t see eye to eye, they did come to similar conclusions in some key areas. Both believe that technology will have a big impact on the workforce, with 79% of consumers and 80% of CEOs expecting job losses as a result of greater use of automation and technology. This issue will become more pressing as new technologies continue to evolve and threaten to disrupt both business models and taxation systems. Also, consumers and CEOs agreed that the biggest threat to trust in business today is data privacy and ethics. CEOs were more acutely concerned about this in light of recent cyber attacks and data breaches.

Another area where consumers were in broad agreement with CEOs was around the benefits and pitfalls of globalisation. On the upsides, both agreed to some or a great extent that globalisation has helped to facilitate trade and enable universal connectivity.  On the downsides, both felt that globalisation had ‘not at all’ helped to bridge the gap between rich and poor. And, worryingly, in terms of the role of ‘the market’ in alleviating the risks of climate change and scarce resources, nearly a quarter of consumers and well over a quarter of CEOs agreed that globalisation had done nothing at all to help in this respect.

Consumer poll

I was impressed to find that business leaders were realists and, in some areas, more thoughtful about the impacts of globalisation on citizens and society than the public. Still, consumers aren’t blind to the trade-offs and they understand that open markets make it easier to move capital, goods and information around the globe. Inevitably, citizens from different countries had different perspectives on the role of business in society. Nevertheless, the need for businesses to increase their focus on operating in a way that takes people and communities into account drew the largest response from consumers.

Finally, as the world has changed hugely since we did our first CEO Survey back in 1998, we threw in a question about how CEOs are coping with technology in their own lives.  Perhaps it’s an age thing – the average CEOs in our research is 55 – but on the surface it seems as if CEOs have some catching up to do. Consumers are way more active on social media than CEOs, more likely to purchase goods online and more likely to have a robot in their homes than CEOs and…, more likely to be active gamers (perhaps the ‘corporate Frank Underwoods’ were a bit evasive here!). The one area CEOs out-scored the consumer in terms of being tech savvy was in their consumption of content online.  Here’s to hoping CEOs are more likely than the general public to read this blog.

Written by: Suzanne Snowden, Director, Global Thought Leadership

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Suzanne is Programme Director for PwC’s Annual Global CEO Survey and Global Director, Thought Leadership at PwC. She has a passion for scanning the horizon for the latest trends and issues that impact global business. She pilots PwC’s network of thought leaders engaging in the creation, development and presentation of PwC’s research and insights.

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