Ron Williams: Unpacking the 2022 GLG Global CEO Survey
Each year since 2019, GLG has surveyed CEOs around the world to gauge their outlook on the global economy and the challenges they anticipate in the year to come. This year, the 2022 GLG CEO Survey, a truly global document includes input from nearly five hundred executives from across the Americas, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific, examines a year like no other. The survey includes insights into both these executives’ concerns for the global economy and their own businesses in 2022, as well as their reasons for optimism.
In this episode of Deciding Factors, Eric Jaffe speaks to veteran businessman and best-selling author Ron Williams about the survey. Together, they dig into some of the most significant findings from the survey – including concerns around employee engagement, a general bullish view of the market, and their outlook on the supply chain. Ron furthermore provides input from his own career and how he sees the widely-used apprenticeship model playing out in a hybrid or remote work environment.
ABOUT RON WILLIAMS: Ron Williams is a veteran business leader and bestselling author who previously served as chairman and CEO of the health insurance giant Aetna. He is currently chairman and CEO of his own advisory firm, RW2 Enterprises, and is active in private equity and as a director on corporate, public sector and non-profit boards. These days he devotes his time and energy to helping future leaders with strategy, values-based leadership, and the continued transformation of the healthcare industry.
Eric Jaffe: We make decisions every day. While some of them are small, many can have a huge impact on our own lives and those around us. But how often do we stop to think about how we make decisions?
Welcome to Deciding Factors, a podcast from GLG. I’m your host, Eric Jaffe. In each episode, I’ll talk to world-class experts and leaders in government, medicine, business, and beyond who can share their firsthand experiences and explain how they [00:00:30] make some of their biggest decisions. We’ll give you fresh insights to help you tackle the tough decisions in your professional life.
Each year since 2019, GLG has surveyed CEOs around the world to gauge their outlook on the global economy and the challenges they anticipate for their own companies in the year to come. This year, we’re thrilled to share our 2022 GLG CEO Survey, now in its third year, a truly global document that includes input from nearly 500 [00:01:00] executives from across the Americas, Europe, and the Asia Pacific that encompass a wide range of industries.
The survey includes insights into both these executives’ concerns for the global economy and their own businesses in 2022, as well as their reasons for optimism. I can’t think of anyone better to help us analyze and explain this data than our guest today.
Ron Williams is a veteran business leader and bestselling author who previously served as chairman and CEO of the health insurance giant, Aetna. He is currently chairman and CEO of his own advisory firm, RW2 Enterprises, and is active in private equity and as a director on corporate, public sector, and nonprofit boards. These days, he devotes his time and energy to helping future leaders with strategy, values-based leadership, and the continued transformation of the healthcare industry.
Listen in as Ron and I dig into a range of information found in the survey from executives’ concerns over employee engagement to a generally bullish view on COVID’s impact and the future of the supply chain.
Ron, so excited to have you with today on Deciding Factors. Welcome to the show.
Ron Williams: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Eric Jaffe: So I thought we could kick things off talking about kind of the global economy and the perception among CEOs about the global economy in 2022. The CEOs that we surveyed are bullish generally about the economy in 2022. What do you think is primarily driving that optimism? Is it a rebound from COVID, a rebound from supply chain, consumer demand, or some other set of factors?
Ron Williams: Well, I think it’s really all of the above. The way I would think about it is as follows. First, it’s very different depending upon the industry. Two, we have a situation where companies really made very significant reductions in their SG&A. As COVID hit, they all were very concerned about cash and cashflow and cash management. And so, companies really took that opportunity to reduce their SG&A load.
At the same time, the consumer demand began to increase as a result of the fact that we put four-and-a-half trillion dollars into the economy. And so, those factors have resulted in many organizations in many industries actually seeing revenue and sales growth above 2019.
Eric Jaffe: For folks who may not know what it is, could you just help define what SG&A is?
Ron Williams: SG&A are really the selling and general administrative expenses of a business. You can think of it as what it costs the business to operate and produce its products, goods, and services.
Eric Jaffe: While the vast majority of CEOs in our survey reported that they expect supply chain issues to have some or severe impact on the economy, only two-thirds of them actually said that it would have a similar level of impact on their business.
So just to drill down into supply chain for a moment, because that is on so people’s minds, why do you think the gap exists between how they expect it to impact the economy versus their own company?
Ron Williams: Well, I think part of it is that some of the supply chain lag has caught up. I think companies also looked at their supply chain and tried to re-engineer it in a way that they were not exposed to single points of failure geographically.
I think also when you look at companies that are in service industries, the supply chain certainly can have an impact, but it’s nowhere near as dramatic as manufacturing companies. And so, I would say that as they look out into 2022, they probably expect to see the impact of the supply chain diminish. And then, you have companies where they have caught up, either through re-engineering the supply chain, or in some instances, simply decreasing the number of SKUs or stock items that they carry.
Eric Jaffe: To spend a little bit of time now talking about COVID, and let’s look back at at 2021, were you surprised that only one-third of executives said that revenue declined in 2021 due to COVID?
Ron Williams: Well, I would say I would have initially thought it would’ve been a little higher. Yes, I would say I was surprised. But I do think we can’t underestimate the fact that just as the government put four-and-a-half trillion dollars into the economy that a lot of individuals also restructured their situation.
If you look at the living circumstances, many individuals ended up going back home to their parents’ house, particularly those who are moving in with family, so they also decreased their expense base. There was a lot of infusion of money from the four-and-a-half trillion dollar infusion from the government, and that has resulted in consumer demand increasing in many areas.
Eric Jaffe: I’m curious, just from a staffing perspective, obviously COVID has dramatically impacted many companies’ ability to staff up. And there’s something like rolling blackouts, as they’re being called, in some franchises and some chains because they simply cannot come up with enough staff to open their stores. Is that something that you expect to continue in 2022, or are companies going to figure out a new model so that they don’t have to close down temporarily?
Ron Williams: It is a challenge, and it’s going to be a challenge significantly in the low wage area, particularly where childcare is really one of the critical issues necessary for the labor force to be able to become active. In many cities right now, children are back on virtual learning, which certainly impacts parents who don’t have a work-at-home opportunity. And that means even if they want to be in the labor market, they really don’t have the ability to go out into the workforce and leave the children at home. So there is this issue of the labor force being there and being able.
I think also there is simply a question of people who were in the labor force who have chosen not to be. Retirees who may have chosen to leave the workforce, if their investments or 401(k) has done much better, they may feel more comfortable not returning into the workforce at this time.
There clearly is a labor shortage. And there also is a skill shortage in the mismatch between people who are in the labor force and the skills that are needed in many industries and sectors as the baby boom generation ages out and retires.
Eric Jaffe: Only two out of every five CEOs in our survey cited supply chain and logistics as their top business priority in 2022. Do you think that was higher in 2020 or earlier in 2021. And do you think these businesses have adapted?
Ron Williams: Well, I think they have adapted in the sense that they have reworked their supply chain to avoid the single points of failure that many of them had been exposed to. Sometimes that meant bringing the supply chain back to the US. In other things, it meant opening multiple facilities in other geographies beyond where they were so that they have an ability to multiple source needed components and capabilities.
So I think the other thing that’s happening is that the expectation is that the supply chain will fundamentally begin to improve in mid-’22, and that people are beginning to see signs of that. And the question is will those turn into be green shoots or will they really wither and die, and the supply chain will continue to be locked up for a bit?
Eric Jaffe: In your view, Ron, what is the right role for government to play in retraining and re-skilling Americans to fill those skill gaps?
Ron Williams: There are very important roles I think the government can play. For example, the local community college system, which has been viewed as a prep school for four year colleges could offer that path for students who are interested in that, but could also offer training tied to the demands of the local businesses in that community: welders, electricians, construction, technology, cable, cyber. There’s a whole set of digital skills and capabilities that are in short supply.
And the question is where is it that individuals can get that training at a fairly modest expense and therefore be able to match their skillset to where the demand is in the labor force today? So I think that that’s a great example of where public private-partnerships between businesses in a community who have a desperate need for labor, as well as the educational systems in those communities, really giving people multiple tracks that may meet the needs of students who aren’t necessarily interested in going to college and taking on the significant debt that that may incur.
Eric Jaffe: So to move on to kind of the workforce, so much is being written right now about the challenges of remote work, the challenges that COVID is posing to workers, the war for talent, and the degree to which workers are themselves pushing back and demanding more rights.
Our survey, not surprisingly, uncovered quite a bit of interesting information. I do want to quote one technology CEO in EMEA who reported, “Increased uncertainty of future business revenue development and higher levels of stress due to lockdowns, childcare, personal sickness, and psychological problems.” Can you speak to how some of those issues are affecting companies and how CEOs are navigating these challenges?
Ron Williams: Well, I think one of the things that quote really referenced is that companies historically thought about benefits, health benefits, as a fringe benefit. This whole experience has taught them that it is fundamentally about the wellbeing of the workforce and that looking after the wellbeing of the workforce, whether it is their physical needs, their emotional or mental health needs, really is core to the productivity of the organization, and also, can be an attractive recruitment tool in this war for talent that we are engaged in.
Companies are going to have to recognize that they need to be a place that people want to come, and that both the benefits, the culture, the level of training and development, is something that attracts the workforce that they’re going to desperately need.
Eric Jaffe: What are you seeing personally CEOs and companies do to try to acquire talent and to retain employees? Is it training, professional development, cultural shifts?
Ron Williams: I would say that it starts with the culture of the company, and it starts with the belief that the company is interested in developing its workforce to the maximum extent possible so that people are gaining skills and gaining earning capacity.
I think, also, companies are in fact looking very much at their wage structure and their compensation structure, and they are finding, in some instances, that they have to increase the wage for new hires, which can lead to wage compression for the existing workforce, which if not addressed, it sends people to change jobs in order to get a raise and to get more compensation. So companies really have to understand they may have a bit of a reset in compensation.
And this is not just a war for talent at the senior levels of the organization, which I think has been going on for some time, this is a war for talent top to bottom. Companies that saw 7 or 8% turnover can easily see 20%. Companies that were used to seeing 15 can easily see 25 or 35% turnover. So companies have to really think deeply about what it takes both culturally, what it takes from a benefit perspective, and what does it take to create a place that people want to be?
Eric Jaffe: Are you seeing kind of new cottage industries of HR consultants or professional development consultants or compensation consultants out there helping educate big organizations on how to accomplish something like that?
Ron Williams: The answer is yes. I think one of the things that companies are doing is they’re really investing in understanding what their current practices and policies are, and how does it impact the workforce? So data-gathering is an extremely important component of this. I’ll give you just a couple of examples.
One company I’m familiar with got feedback on their tuition reimbursement program, which was a program that was used essentially by highly-compensated individuals who could afford to pay the tuition and then get reimbursed. So the employees who really wanted to take advantage of it that were moderately compensated were the very ones who couldn’t. And so the company had to think about how to restructure that program in a way that others could take advantage of it.
What other things that companies are doing is taking a look at the actual job requirements and differentiating what are really the necessary skills to do the job and what are the preferences and the historical practices? Many positions require a college degree when a college degree is not really required.
Also, companies are taking a look at how do they take these skills necessary to do a job and create glide paths that give employees the opportunity to learn those skills by doing jobs that contribute to the productivity of the organization and make themselves better candidates for higher paying positions.
So those would be examples of where companies need outside resource to help them tackle these issues. Because, often, they don’t have a way of thinking and looking at the problem that will help them do what they’d like to do.
Eric Jaffe: Most executives in the survey do not foresee returning fully to the office, but expect hybrid or remote options to remain. What role do you think being in-person played in your career, both in your ability to receive as well as to deliver mentorship and professional development?
Ron Williams: Corporate America really operates much like an apprentice system. It’s never talked about in those terms, but most executives remember the first meeting they went to with the vice-presidents or the executives of the company or the first meeting they were in with the CEO.
And it is by sitting in those meetings, observing what happens before the meeting, during the meeting, after the meeting, that that apprenticeship is served and you have an understanding of how companies operate and work.
And one of the examples I often give is that when a group of attorneys show up to serve one of my private equity portfolio companies, if there are no women on the team, no women will ever learn to be partners. If they’re on the team, and they are there in a junior role, over time, they have an opportunity to be a partner. And so, it really is important in certain industries where there is this kind of apprentice because there is a lot of informal knowledge and information that gets transmitted in those settings.
And so, I think one of the things that we’ll learn is whether those individuals who choose to come into the office every day to work with the senior executives, to develop relationships with them, will they be competitively advantaged relative to others who don’t? And are people making a career choice that may be self-limiting or not? It’s a perfectly fine choice. It’s the same choice someone makes who chooses to be a teacher who wants to work with children. They make a tremendous contribution to society, but their compensation is well-defined and limited.
Eric Jaffe: I think that’s such a insightful point, and I think you’ve described that mentorship model perfectly in corporate America. I guess I just wonder do you think that that mentorship model could be adapted to a remote world so that people could deliver that same kind of mentorship before, during, and after meetings over Zoom, or is it simply not possible?
Ron Williams: I don’t know that it is impossible. I know that we don’t know how to do it today. And I think one of the things that companies are struggling with is how do they take their operating model and transfer it into the hybrid or virtual world?
Eric Jaffe: How would you recommend CEOs who can’t get into the office look for opportunities to connect both in small and large ways and in meaningful ways with their employees if they can’t get in-person?
Ron Williams: Well, I think one of the things that CEOs can do is really convene informal groups of individuals at multiple levels in the organization, just as he or she might very well go to a site and have lunch with the frontline sales team or the frontline service team without the supervisors there.
And I always would ] have that meeting, and I would start out by explaining that each of you is going to be king, queen, emperor, or empresses for a day, and I want you to tell me two things that we should do to make the company a better place for you and a better place for our customers, and everyone needs to come up with things that are real and substantive. And I found that those sessions were extremely valuable. I got some of the best ideas on what we needed to fix and what we needed to do.
And I think it’s an example where the company has to transfer the mechanisms that it used into the virtual world. And while I couldn’t go there today, you could still convene that group and have that conversation. And so, I would encourage the CEO, he or she, to continue to outreach and engage because word gets out that you actually want real authentic conversations to understand the issues that people face.
Eric Jaffe: We tend to think of the last couple of years and the immediate future as being just a very challenging time for everyone across the globe given COVID and the global economy and all of the different challenges that we’ve talked about today. As companies are looking at morale and looking to optimize morale, do you think that there is a lower ceiling for morale given all of the challenges human beings face right now? Or do you think it is still possible for companies to have a really highly motivated, happy, and engaged workforce despite all of those challenges?
Ron Williams: The answer is the company must try, and it starts with the company articulating a clear and elevating mission and goal that the company is about. While the CEO and the CFO may get really excited about growing their EPS 15% or 20% or whatever the target is, most people come to work because they want to make the world a better place.
And if you can connect what people are doing to the mission of the company and how that mission has a real impact on society in a positive way, then you stand an opportunity to unlock that discretionary energy that people have. Everyone has it, but only they can decide to invest it in the organization, and it’s up to the leadership to make that connection.
And it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. If you’re a bank or you’re a mortgage company, you’re helping people fulfill their dream and to have a home to raise their family in, and that’s a very noble activity. And so, it’s really making that connection and that link and making it real in a way that you get that discretionary engagement that people choose to give you.
Eric Jaffe: Ron, thank you so much. This was a fascinating conversation. We were so honored to have you come on and talk with us today.
Ron Williams: My pleasure.
Eric Jaffe: That was veteran business leader, Ron Williams, offering his own insights into the 2022 GLG CEO Survey.
I think my biggest takeaway for my interview with Ron was his point about the value of career development taking place in the office. The apprenticeship model, for better or for worse, is often used to cultivate talent. And the fact that most meetings now occur over Zoom could prove to be an obstacle. Some professionals will be able to return to the office to benefit from this in-person mentorship, but many who remain remote will have to figure out how to adapt. We hope you’ll join us next time for a brand new episode of Deciding Factors featuring another one of GLG’s network members.
Every day, GLG facilitates conversations with experts across nearly every industry and geography, helping our clients with insight that leads to true clarity. Feel free to leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to hear from you. Or email us at email@example.com if you have feedback or ideas for future show topics. For Deciding Factors and GLG, I’m Eric Jaffe. Thanks for listening.
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