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Creating an Australian first

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Over the past 25 years, Matt English’s survey has become recognised as both a benchmark for CEO performance and a guide to business sentiment. But that first survey remains his most memorable particularly when it came to getting approval for its cover image of an exploding volcano.

Many of the issues that keep today’s CEOs awake at night were emerging in 1997, but were not fully understood. Two topics that surprised everyone in that first survey were previously unspoken concerns about globalisation and IT. English says the realisation that these challenges were high on everyone’s agenda was quite a wake up call. With Australia’s economy on an upswing, individual business leaders were obviously considering opportunities for growth in Asia and global markets, but how to use the internet to find these customers was a grey area. 

Information technology was regarded as an emerging but challenging concept. Business leaders saw it more as a function to manage via an IT department. But an increasingly user-friendly internet with e-commerce and e-trade opportunities meant they needed to understand this game-changing technology. What was seen as an emerging tool 25 years ago, now underpins all functions within organisations.

Today, decisions about social media, globalisation, regulation, governance, contingency planning and the future of work confront CEOs daily. “Social media has blasted into the forefront and whether you’re a B2B or B2C organisation the whole impact is very significant. In 1997 CEOs didn’t have to deal with that,” says Monash Business School Professor and former PwC Partner Matt English. “The social media revolution changed the landscape. Mobile technology has made significant shifts in the way we do business. Buying decisions can be done instantly, creating a huge change in customer behaviour,” he adds.

Shifting priorities

Rapid change and taxing priorities provide a real challenge for today’s CEOs. In addition to customer dynamics and social media, contingency planning, ever growing ESG concerns, and challenging workforce models are high on the agenda. “Today everyone is getting pulled in so many different directions and the challenge is to maintain focus and discipline while still being agile,” English says. “CEOs in 1997 felt they had a handle on sticking to the main game.” 

But agility was also a crucial issue for 1997s CEOs as they grappled with rapid change. PwC’s first survey revealed a deep concern about people issues, including finding the right talent and skill sets. This concern was in the context of a more hierarchical style of leadership at the time. CEOs were essentially location based or visited worksites for face-to-face meetings. Leaders today are more collaborative, managing change through teamwork and communicating using different forms of technology. Structures and communication channels have changed, and the concept of working from home didn’t exist in 1997. Appreciating the benefits of diversity was something English says rated lower on the pecking order in 1997. Today, CEOs embrace a broader social agenda, and appreciate the benefits of diversity and inclusion.

Creating Conversations

In 1997, Australian business was in transition, moving from manufacturing to a services-based economy. With strong economic growth in the second half of the 1990s, English and a team of Partners wanted to understand the real drivers of organisations and organisational change.

Since there was limited data available, they wanted their home-grown survey to draw out key themes. To develop the idea, they sought to create deeper client conversations. Partners interviewed 65 clients, and results were shared via a series of networking dinners, or face-to-face feedback and discussion sessions. 

In 1998, the survey was expanded to cover 100 clients and the cover image - of an exploding volcano - was chosen to highlight volatility in the market and the hot topics within.

For the first time, Australian CEOs were able to see what motivated their peers, share ideas and identify new opportunities in Asia and beyond. “CEOs saw the survey as an opportunity, it wasn’t just that they were answering a series of questions. This was an opportunity for them to participate, see and understand the results. They were not just reading a report,” English says. “When we got the CEOs back together we found rich peer-to-peer conversations occurring.”

That tradition of personal feedback and rewarding conversations continues today. Participants in PwC’s 25th anniversary CEO Survey FY 2022 have access to a personalised benchmark report which showcases their results against those of their local, industry and global peers. Further learnings can be gained through one-to-one Partner/client conversations and through a series of dedicated events.

So can today’s CEOs learn from their 1997 counterparts? Yes, says English. 1997 was a time of rapid change, challenges and opportunities, themes that are top of mind for CEOs today. It's essential that agile leaders maintain their focus and discipline.

Contact us

Matt Graham

Matt Graham

Managing Partner, Assurance, PwC Australia

Tel: +61 412 744 547