Woman and child on a laptop

Pandemic focuses leaders on what matters

  • Bill Thomas, Leadership |

The COVID-19 crisis is making demands of CEOs that few people could have predicted just months ago, and in many ways, has already redefined leadership. Every person, business and country has somehow been impacted by this pandemic, and all are at different stages. The uncertainty is unparalleled, and without a cure for the health crisis, this is our near-term future.

It has pushed executives at the world’s largest and leading companies to act with decisiveness—according to our KPMG 2020 CEO Outlook, a special COVID-19 edition of our annual survey of CEOs. Overall, the pandemic has forced leaders to dramatically realign their priorities by accelerating their company’s digital transformation and ensuring their talent pipelines can adapt to new demands.

After interviewing hundreds of CEOs, first in January and then again in July and August to see how their perspective changed, we found that executive leaders are acting fast and firm, with many following a similar playbook that reaches across their entire business:

  • 70% are redesigning office spaces and expanding work from home policies out of necessity.
  • 75% are investing in technology to make sure their teams are connected and equipped.
  • 80% are reevaluating their corporate purpose, their reason for being. 

These are truly dramatic and relatively universal shifts across leadership circles—none more telling than talent shooting to the top of the list of risks CEOs were concerned about in only 6 months. Because companies have had to rely on technology, and accelerated their own digital transformations to confront the challenges the pandemic caused, they need the talent to match this change to fully capitalize on the new investments and meet demands.

It also makes sense, and may even follow, that COVID-19 has prompted CEOs to meaningfully re-consider purpose as a key driver of corporate success, both today and in the future. CEOs recognize that companies have a role in tackling the critical global challenges facing society. The pandemic has accelerated the call for societal change and made CEOs re-evaluate their purpose.

Together, it’s a lot to do for any leader, especially on an expedited timeframe. Leaders are concerned about the people who do the work, where they do the work, what tools they use to do the work, and why they do the work. Everything is on the table.

Our story at KPMG is no different than those interviewed. We understand what businesses are going through, because we’re going through it too, and ultimately there’s no tested playbook for the crisis we face today. Making sure people are safe, leaning on and deploying technology like never before, rebuilding logistical processes and developing new supply chains, helping ensure that vendors across the world can be relied on. The list feels bottomless at times, because uncertainty is the only certainty.

We’ve never halted basic human interaction or stopped economic activity like we have needed to during this pandemic. But our study has shown, many leaders are following a focused strategy providing us with some clarity in all the uncertainty: Talented people, equipped with the right tools and a strong sense of purpose make resilient and agile companies. That’s how companies succeed in good times, and the pandemic only magnifies that strategy’s importance. 

No one knows what the future holds—especially today. However, what is clear is that the digital transformation of business is accelerating, talented people will be just as important as they always have been, and that leaders will need to make sure their company’s purpose matters and that they are part of the solution to the many problems the world faces.

Throughout this blog, “we”, “KPMG”, “us” and “our” refer to the network of independent member firms operating under the KPMG name and affiliated with KPMG International or to one or more of these firms or to KPMG International. KPMG International provides no client services. No member firm has any authority to obligate or bind KPMG International or any other member firm vis-à-vis third parties, nor does KPMG International have any such authority to obligate or bind any member firm.