As Canada battles its fourth wave of COVID-19, one thing is clear: Canadian business leaders are well prepared to ride out any uncertainty that comes their way.
Canadian companies have proven their resiliency and adaptability through pandemic-related lockdowns, a crash course in moving their workforces en masse to remote working, managing employee mental wellbeing and COVID fatigue, persistent supply chain disruptions, and heightened vigilance on cybersecurity threats.
Indeed, amid new far more contagious variants and mixed vaccine rates globally, Canadian CEOs remain quite optimistic. Our latest KPMG in Canada CEO Outlook Survey reveals that their level of confidence in the growth prospects for their company and industry over the next three years remains impressively strong, although it has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels. The vast majority (85 per cent) of CEOs are confident in their company's three-year growth prospects, compared to 93 per cent in 2019. Their views are similar to global CEOs, at 87 per cent.
While every industry has faced its own set of unique challenges during the pandemic, they have all endured shipping bottlenecks, rising freight and/or material costs, and labour shortages. Yet encouragingly, more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of Canadian and global CEOs are confident their industry will experience growth over the next three years in line with their outlook six months ago and only eight percentage points below 2019 levels.
We can point to two key reasons for their confidence: the Canadian economy and digital innovation.
Bullish on Canada
With nearly four in five eligible Canadians fully vaccinated against COVID-19, one of the highest rates among G7 countries, the Canadian economy appears better positioned than others in getting through future waves of the virus. Inflation, while a concern, may well moderate if and when supply chain bottlenecks unwind. Households – to quote RBC Economics – "are awash in purchasing power" – pent-up consumer spending just waiting to be unleashed.
Not so surprisingly then, nearly nine in 10 (89 per cent) CEOs in Canada are bullish on the domestic economy. That's notably higher from 79 per cent in 2019, when many business executives were predominantly worried about the impacts of climate change, geopolitical trade wars and increasing territorialism.
Canadian business leaders today consider emerging / disruptive technology the greatest threat to growth. Interestingly, for the first time in four years, regulatory risks emerged to tie technology for the No. 1 risk, moving up from 10th spot in 2017. Cybersecurity, operational, and environmental / climate risks followed closely behind.
Power of innovation
The risk to growth from emerging technologies has always hovered near the top. We are after all in the fourth industrial revolution. Futurist and author Steve Brown expressed it well, "(t)echnology in the 2020s is exponentially more powerful than the technology we had at our fingertips in the 2000s and even in the 2010s."
But, the pandemic really forced executives to open their eyes to the new possibilities. They witnessed first hand the power of innovation and integral importance of their organization being digitally connected. CEOs and their Boards have quickly come to realize in a matter of months that an enterprise which is both connected and powered (through cloud computing) is the ultimate pandemic survivor guide.
of Canadian CEOs see technological disruption as an opportunity
According to our KPMG CEO Outlook survey, nine in 10 Canadian CEOs now view technological disruption as more of an opportunity than a threat, compared to 75 per cent four years ago. And, rather than just accepting the status quo, as many as 86 per cent said they are actively disrupting their industry sector – up by a striking 26 per cent within the past year alone.
How does that compare to global peers?
Interestingly, only 76 per cent of global CEOs view technological disruption as more of an opportunity than a threat (vs. 71 per cent four years ago) and 72 per cent said their organizations are actively disrupting the sector in which they operate (vs. 61 per cent in 2020).
Pointedly, four in five (81 per cent) Canadian CEOs described their digital investment strategy as "aggressive" and "intended to secure first-mover or fast-follower status" (75 per cent globally).
Here, it is important to point out that the respondents are among the big corporates: Over three-quarters have more than US$500 million in annual revenue, including 44 per cent over US$10 billion. Many of these corporate giants, depending on their industry sector, are already or striving to be digital leaders. So, while these are definitely positive takeaways, what is concerning to us is the gap that's not only emerging but deepening between these digital leaders and everyone else – not only between Canadian companies and their global competitors but within and across sectors in Canada.
have an aggressive digital investment strategy, intended to secure first-mover or fast-follower status
Investing in people
The need to find and retain the right skillsets will become increasingly paramount as companies look to transform digitally. The competition for talent has never been more fierce. Separate research by KPMG shows the inability to find and retain talent is the top threat to business growth prospects across the country, with nearly 70 per cent of predominantly mid-sized enterprises saying they are having a hard time hiring people with the right skills.
believe the accelerated pace of digital transformation will not be sustainable without addressing burnout among their workforce
Not surprisingly then, large corporates are investing in their own people. A third (32 per cent) of Canadian CEOs are placing more capital investment in developing their workforce's skills and capabilities, albeit below their global peers, at 40 per cent.
One of their biggest concerns is burnout. According to the KPMG CEO Outlook survey, 76 per cent of business leaders said the accelerated pace of digital transformation through the pandemic "will not be sustainable without first addressing burnout" among their workforce. This supports our previous research earlier this year when we highlighted this concern, pointing to the need for organizations to remember we're all only human and in this new world of remote work companies must ensure appropriate policies and practices are in place to support the well-being of their employees.
Moving forward together
How we all cope, how we all learn, and how we all come together will determine our future success. All kinds of new challenges have been thrust upon us during the pandemic and yet they have also helped to smash barriers and spark great innovation.
The next year brings much hope and promise. There may be bumps in the road but we have shown that we can and will carry on.
 COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker Canada and Tracking Coronavirus Vaccinations Around the World, The New York Times, as of Sept. 3, 2021.
 RBC Economics, Forward Guidance: Our Weekly Preview, Sept. 6, 2021.
 "A huge digital gulf is emerging between Canadian companies", by Stephanie Terrill and Sanjay Pathak, KPMG in Canada, Toronto Star, July 31, 2021
 "Canadian businesses struggling to find skilled talent", KPMG in Canada survey, August 31, 2021
 "Canadians exhausted but more loyal 13 months into the pandemic", KPMG in Canada survey, April 26, 2021