• Carl Carande, Leadership |

From last March and until about January, CEOs I’ve been connecting with had been focused on keeping employees safe, customers connected and supply chains running. They had been in survival mode.

More recently, I’ve found that they feel that they have adapted their businesses to the new reality and are shifting their attention to the future. They’re not satisfied with simply surviving the storm, they’re now focused on thriving. Leaders are prioritizing new digital technologies and revenue streams in order to transform their businesses.

According to our latest CEO Outlook Pulse Survey, a return to ‘normal’ is imminent. Almost a third of global executives believe that this will happen later in 2021, and a further 45 percent anticipate business as usual sometime next year.

Building on digital gains

A digital advantage won’t inoculate the business against competition, but it can certainly provide an edge.

Having seen their organizations switch to remote communications with employees, customers, suppliers and partners in a matter of weeks, the pressure is on leaders to maintain the pace of digital transformation.

The vast majority of CEOs we surveyed point to the amazing progress made in digitizing their operations, business models and revenue streams during the pandemic. Three-quarters (74 percent) say that the speed of digitization has accelerated by a matter of months, while around a fifth say they’re already years ahead of where they imagined they’d be.

In fact, a quarter have changed their business models – forever.

CEOs plan to spend more on digital technologies compared to a year ago, with 49 percent investing heavily in communications like video conferencing and messaging.

Meanwhile, onboarding of new digital technology is the leading driver for M&A, with 61 percent of leaders citing this as their prime reason for doing future deals.

Meeting the customer ‘where they are’

CEOs are also acutely aware that customer experience is the future battlefield. Having become accustomed to connecting virtually during COVID-19, customers will expect ever more sophisticated digital experiences.

Consequently, 56 percent of the leaders surveyed have been ramping up efforts to develop a seamless digital customer experience, with half intending to spend significantly more on customer-centric technologies.

And 57 percent say they’ll be engaging with customers mainly via virtual platforms such as chat bots, telephone, web and social media. Meeting the customer ‘where they are’ is the new mantra.

Coping with cyber threats

With a growing emphasis on speed to market, companies will have to cut the time it takes to innovate and roll out new products and services. Failure to do so can put entire businesses at risk, as we’ve seen in retail and other sectors.

But increasing digitization raises the specter of cyber-attacks and data breaches. Cyber security is now seen as the biggest restraint on growth and operations over the next 3 years, and more than half of CEOs (52 percent) plan to spend more on this area.

CEOs must constantly balance the benefits of launching products quickly against the increased attendant cyber risks if those products haven’t been fully tested and secured.

Moving from crisis to confidence

The road is never straight and narrow. Inconsistent access to the vaccine around the world, and the potential for variant strains of the virus, mean leaders must continue to be flexible and prepared to change course.

But there’s a growing feeling that the incredible achievements of the past year can be sustained and possibly even exceeded, through continued investment in digital. While vaccines may protect our teams, digital advances can both protect and transform our businesses.