As recession risk looms, some CEOs adopt tougher talk

Amid the potential for an economic downturn, CEOs across the U.S. are becoming more hard-line with their discussions and actions compared to the warmer tone they may have used earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, The Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 3. 

Take Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google's parent company, Alphabet, for example. In a July email to employees obtained by The Washington Post, Mr. Pichai told employees the company "need[s] to be more entrepreneurial, working with greater urgency, sharper focus, and more hunger than we've shown on sunnier days." He also indicated Google would slow hiring in the current economic environment. 

The change of tone reflects what forecasters see a greater risk of recession. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal from April 1-5 put the odds of recession in the next 12 months at 28 percent, which is more than double what the probability was a year ago. 

When there is a potential for an economic downturn, this may prompt corporate leaders to change their tone with workers, executives, board members and corporate advisers told The Wall Street Journal. This change of tone might mean fewer talks about flexibility with remote work or fewer reassuring messages to employees.  

"In the good times, we want to focus people on the growth aspects," Ellen Kullman, chairwoman of 3D printing company Carbon and former CEO of DuPont, told The Wall Street Journal. "But when the economy appears to have the potential for that downturn, it's fundamentals 101. It's: How do I conserve cash? How do I focus the team to emerge from whatever this is stronger?"

Not all CEOs are changing their messaging, however. Rich Barton, CEO of Zillow Group, told The Wall Street Journal he tries not to do so when there is a transitioning economy, and he views great leadership as a steady force. 

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