CEO Survey: A recovery, yes, but also a full ‘rethink’

Growing optimism among U.S. business leaders includes new opportunities for growth amid heightened focus on a company’s purpose and people.

The pandemic has irrevocably changed the way people think about the world. And, as we report in our 2021 U.S. CEO Outlook survey, that’s certainly the case for business leaders as well.

Sure, there is significant optimism back in the boardroom, but chief executives are not simply focused on getting back to “business as usual.” Weathered by the seismic changes and trial-by-fire lessons of the last 18 months, the 1,325 CEOs that we talked to from large companies, including 400 in the U.S., are taking a fresh new view of the business—and reevaluating their overall mission and goals in the process.

In general, three key areas of focus emerged from our latest CEO survey: growth, purpose, and people. To deliver results in each area, company finance teams will need to play a lead role, partnering with the CEO to turn the ideas into actionable goals with measurable results—and always understanding the related financial implications.

We take a closer look at each of the three themes below, and you can get the full 2021 U.S. CEO Outlook Survey here.

A return to growth

Based on our survey, the next few years promise to be busy on the M&A front, with 86 percent of the CEOs we interviewed indicating they are likely to be making acquisitions over the next three years. The prevailing winds are certainly strong, with private equity sitting on an estimated $1.5 trillion in dry powder, historically low interest rates and the emergence of new M&A drivers like the special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

The CEOs are just as focused on organic growth, and specifically through digital. For many companies, the pandemic sped up digital innovation and demonstrated the power of advanced data and analytics to stay connected with customers.



 said they have an aggressive digital investment strategy 


 say they will move quickly to shift investment away from lines of business that face digital obsolescence

Source: HFS & KPMG Managed Services Outlook, 4Q 2021

At the same time, the CEOs acknowledged that the return to growth also requires navigating new and evolving risks, and especially supply chain pressures, tax changes and cybersecurity threats heightened by an increasingly fluid workforce. CEOs expressed vigilance on all three fronts:

On the supply chain, nearly half of the U.S. CEOs (47 percent) reported increased stress on their companies, and 59 percent said they were focused on increasing supply chain resilience in anticipation of future threats.

On taxes, 77 percent cited the proposed global minimum tax as a significant threat to growth.

And for cybersecurity, just 11 percent of the CEOs felt their companies were well-prepared for an attack even though 76 percent said that top-notch cybersecurity was critical to maintaining trust in their companies

Purpose and people

Among the biggest revelations of our 2021 CEO Outlook survey is the increasing focus on a company’s mission and employees. It’s been a growing theme in previous years’ surveys, but the post-pandemic CEO is more focused than ever on both areas.

In particular, environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives were top of mind, with CEOs citing increased pressure from shareholders to focus on sustainability. Some three-quarters of those surveyed (76 percent) said they are committed to locking in the sustainability and climate change gains their companies made during the pandemic.

The heightened emphasis on ESG is part of a broader focus on a company’s purpose and mission. Indeed, 61 percent of CEOs said their company’s principal focus was to lead with purpose and create long-term value for all stakeholders—customers, employees, investors, and their communities. By contrast, just 15 percent of those surveyed cited economic returns as their company’s top goal.

Finally, CEOs are intently focused on their people, identifying this as their No. 1 operational priority. Burnout, stress, diversity, upskilling, remote work—CEOs and their companies are navigating a complex mix of challenges post-pandemic.


said that while the acceleration of digital innovation during the pandemic was essential, it will not be sustainable without addressing employee stress and burnout 

To deliver growth while managing risks both new and old, the CEOs we spoke with said they intend to stay plugged in, purpose-driven, and people-focused. For much more on their thinking, read the complete KPMG 2021 U.S. CEO Outlook now.

Contact us

Paul Knopp

Paul Knopp

Chair and CEO, KPMG US

+1 847-612-3437
Lisa Massman

Lisa Massman

Principal, Human Capital Advisory Leader, KPMG US

+1 213-955-1524