Do CEO Surveys constitute a reliable bellwether, or are they little more than well packaged corporate propaganda pieces? The answer is yes on both accounts. Not only does N2Growth conduct CEO Surveys, but so do most other consultancies.

It has been my experience that the determining factor in whether or not CEO surveys are reliable can be found solely in whether or not the data is being published for external consumption. In today’s post I’ll share some thoughts about how to discern the value (or lack thereof) of CEO surveys.

While today’s topic should be obvious to all, I find that for many it’s very easy to get caught-up in reading for the sake of reading, rather than understanding what they’re reading, and truly discerning the value of the content being consumed. While good and honorable intentions may exist behind externally published surveys, I have always found them to be of very little value.

Externally published surveys tend to consist of high level, watered-down information full of caveats, posturing and spin. CEOs being publicly quoted often find it difficult to be candid. Their need to balance what’s being said against the fear of unwittingly making forward looking statements, raising the ire of disgruntled shareholders, attracting negative attention from the media, disclosing sensitive information to competitors, giving analysts the wrong impression, or creating regulatory or legal risk simply challenge the credibility of many externally published statements attributed to individual CEOs. Attributed quotes tend to be understated, but mostly positive, while negative statements tend to be generic references to aggregated group sentiments or statistics, or pointed toward “other” companies.

A perfect example of the premise stated above can be demonstrated by reviewing a recent CEO Survey published by PricewaterhouseCoopers in which you’ll find generic negative references like: “The percentage of CEOs who were ‘very confident’ about their one-year revenue growth prospects dropped to 21%, the lowest level in six years.” You not only won’t find any CEOs names attached to this statement, but more importantly there is no supporting information provided for this statement that would allow readers to determine whether or not it bears any relevance or impact upon their individual circumstances. All a reader can discern from this statement is that CEOs realize that we are in a tough economic environment…boy, that’s sure enlightening and helpful.

Here’s another brilliant observation contained in the PWC survey: “Each CEO faces different challenges, but all want to meet the acute demands of survival, preserve the advantages that make them competitive over the long-term, and ensure that their business models are prepared for a return to growth when it comes.” Duhhhhhh.

I’m not suggesting that as business leaders you shouldn’t consume these reports and surveys, but that you have the discernment to recognize them for what they are. However I would suggest that a better use of time is to conduct your own informal CEO surveys. Your audience/respondents should be comprised of the CEOs of your customers/clients, vendors, suppliers, partners, lenders, investors, etc. By interviewing relevant constituencies you will not only receive useful first-hand information that is candid, but you’ll also improve the relationships most critical to the success of your enterprise.


Image credit: University of Southern California