No less than 97% of Belgian CEOs are confident that their business will grow this year and in the next 3 years, compared with respectively 85% and 90% of their counterparts in Western Europe. Slightly less than half of Belgian CEOs (44%) believe that the world economy will improve over the next twelve months. This compares with a worldwide percentage of 29%, a slight rise of two percentage points against 2016.
However, findings of the 20th Global CEO Survey show that the vast majority of Belgian CEOs (91%) have less confidence in geopolitical developments than their counterparts in the rest of the world (74%).
The results of the annual Global CEO Survey thus highlight a positive outlook for the economy and for their own companies, but also major concern about developments such as geopolitical threats, over-regulation, the state of infrastructure, the speed of technological change, the availability of competences and social instability. More than 2300 CEOs were interviewed in the survey, the results of which were presented tonight at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
"Short-term confidence has risen back to its 2015 level, despite continuing economic and geopolitical uncertainty. In the opinion of CEOs, the most serious threats to business growth are not economic uncertainty, but over-regulation and a shortage of key competences. Innovation, technology and having the right talent on board are the main growth drivers. In the same vein, we find that company leaders are focusing on adaptability, creativity and digital skills to make their companies fit for the future.”
In the view of Belgian CEOs, the five countries with the biggest growth prospects in 2017 are Germany (44%), the US (44%), China (29%), the United Kingdom (18%) and the Netherlands (18%).
As regards the shape of this growth, 85% of Belgian CEOs point to organic growth as the main way of generating profits (vs.. 79% worldwide), followed by cost reductions (76% vs.. 62%) and cooperation with entrepreneurs and start-ups (44% vs. 28%). The Belgian results thus follow the trends in neighbouring Germany (cost reductions 88% and cooperation 56%).
The top 3 growth threats worldwide are: economic uncertainty (82%), over-regulation (80%) and the availability of crucial competences (77%). In Belgium, geopolitical uncertainty is seen as the greatest threat (91%), followed by uncertain economic growth (85%) and over-regulation (also 85%).
To a greater extent than their foreign counterparts, Belgian CEOs are concerned about the speed of technological change (82% vs. 70% worldwide), cyber threats (76% vs. 61%), social instability (74% vs. 68%), volatile energy costs (74% vs. 49%), rising tax burdens (71% vs. 68%), changing consumer behaviour (71% vs. 65%), preparedness to react to a crisis (68% vs. 59%), terrorism (68% vs. 54%) and climate change and environmental damage (68% vs. 50%). Infrastructure and transport are also concerns for Belgian CEOs.
Not only is human capital a priority; more CEOs worldwide (52%) plan to increase headcount this year. By contrast, 29% of Belgian CEOs consider automation and other technologies the main reason for possible headcount reductions, while for the remaining 71% these are at least a factor. This is noticeably higher than the 25% and 55% respective global averages.
CEOs attach great importance to specific competences such as leadership (72%), creativity and innovation (62%) and emotional intelligence (49%). These competences are hard to find and – at least for the moment – difficult to replace by machines. 88% of Belgian CEOs (vs. 77% worldwide) are experiencing difficulties in finding creative and innovative talents, and 66% (vs. 77% worldwide) in finding digital skills.
Compared to the Western European average, more CEOs in Belgium are developing ‘people strategies’ tailored to attract new talents (88% vs. 78%). More Belgian business leaders are adding digital skills to their training programmes (88% vs. 69% in Western Europe) and are looking at how humans and machines can work together (76% vs. 51% in Western Europe). 94% of Belgian CEOs - vs. 79% worldwide - view digital skills as important for their business.
“It is becoming increasingly clear that the speed of technological change is shifting the focus of CEOs in terms of human resources from simply ‘How much?’ to ‘What profile?’”, said Axel Smits. “62% of the Belgian CEOs surveyed see the future in artificial intelligence and automation – including 'block chain' – compared to 45% worldwide. Half of Belgian respondents point to the uncertainty about how taxes are applied to digital resources. Success will become increasingly dependent on having the right employees to get the organisation fit for the future – an important issue for our clients and for us."
Lack of trust in business is a continuing threat and 69% of CEOs believe that it has become more difficult for companies to gain and maintain trust in the digital age. Two-thirds of Belgian CEOs (68%) view the uncertainty over the taxation of digital trade as negatively impacting trust in their sector. This is significantly higher than the worldwide result (46%). CEOs view cyber security, breaches of data privacy and IT disruptions as the biggest technological threats to stakeholder confidence.
But trust is not just a risk but also an opportunity. Two-thirds of CEOs (64%) are of the opinion that the way they manage data will become a differentiating factor.
Belgian CEOs are characterised by a high degree of internationalism, with 76% having worked for at least one year abroad on an international assignment, against just 53% worldwide. In Germany and the United Kingdom, the respective figures are 46% and 53%.
For nearly one in four Belgian CEOs (24%), the country they work in is their country of birth (vs. 17% in Western Europe). In neighbouring Netherlands, the figure is only 3%. Belgian CEOs thus combine extensive international experience with strong local roots.