Engaged Employees and Satisfied Customers Dominate Thinking of CEOs in 2014 Global Study Finds Leaders Focused on Optimizing Performance and Winning Market Share in an Age of Slow Growth

NEW YORK, Jan. 9, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- With the political and economic repercussions from the 2008 financial crisis still unfolding, the thought of returning to pre-crisis global growth rates remains a distant one. More than half a decade on, business leaders are focused instead on maximizing the potential of their own companies, forging performance-oriented cultures designed to attract and satisfy customers in the face of stiffening global competition.

So finds The Conference Board CEO Challenge 2014, a report released today based on a survey of CEOs, presidents, and chairmen from more than 1,000 companies around the world. As in previous years, executives were asked to identify and rank the most pressing challenges they face and their strategies for addressing each. Worldwide, Human Capital — how best to develop, engage, manage, and retain talent — was named the leading challenge among ten choices, followed by Customer Relationships, Innovation, Operational Excellence, and Corporate Brand and Reputation.  

"While earlier years saw major discrepancies between regions, challenges cited by CEOs for 2014 revealed global convergence," said Charles Mitchell, The Conference Board Executive Director for Knowledge Management and lead author of the report. "The top challenges across all regions and nearly all countries converged around questions of internal strength — better products, smarter workers, stronger customer appeal and collaboration."

CEO Challenge 2014 is the most comprehensive edition of the survey yet, reaching nearly 300 more executives than last year. It also added two new questions — about hot-button issues and leadership attributes — that offer even deeper insight on pressing concerns across continents and industries. Most notably, "Big Data" was named the leading hot-button issue, echoing the need for technology-driven, customer-centric innovations.

"In the years immediately after the crisis, we found CEOs struggling to respond to varied external dangers threatening the global economy and each region," said Bart van Ark, Executive Vice President and Chief Economist and co-author of the report. "Facing the risk of depression and financial paralysis, matters like branding and customer relationships were considered afterthoughts. Now, basic survival is less of an issue than how to adapt to — and prosper in — a growth environment likely to remain fairly sluggish. Fortunately, there is room to strengthen engagement, accountability, customer-centricity, agility, and more. In 2014, CEOs are asking not only what things get done, but how they get done."

At the Center of Everything: Employees

Human Capital was named the top challenge of global CEOs (first in Europe and Asia, second in North America and Latin America). It is also intimately linked with all the other top challenges for 2014.  

"Though particular strategies vary from region to region, business leaders worldwide are working  to optimize their greatest resource — their employees and those who will lead them," said Rebecca Ray, Senior Vice President, Human Capital at The Conference Board, and a co-author of the report. "This emphasis on people-related issues makes perfect sense in a still-uncertain economy. Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development, and high performance is something companies can control, and can mean the difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014. Moreover, if the focus of individual companies is sustained, Human Capital may well be the engine that revives economic growth."

Across regions and sectors, the necessity—and benefits—of forging a world-class workforce is the key recurring theme of CEO Challenge 2014.

  • Enhancing employee engagement and creating a performance-based culture are major strategies for global CEOs focused on Human Capital. "Improve performance management processes and accountability" rose to the number-one strategy in a China facing slower growth, as well as in Asia as a whole, where it rose from seventh place in 2013. "Enhance effectiveness of senior management team" is also a leading Asian strategy, while employee engagement ranked as a top-two priority in all regions.

  • CEOs put their workforces at the center of the Operational Excellence challenge, with performance management and accountability a key strategy alongside "seek better alignment between strategy, objectives, and organizational capabilities." The goal is a reshaping of the work environment and culture to one that rewards performance.

  • Globally, three of the top five strategies for Innovation are also predicated on Human Capital. CEOs in 2014 are working to "create culture of innovation by promoting and rewarding entrepreneurship and risk-taking," "develop innovation skills for all employees," and "incentivize key talent for innovation." 

  • Countries like China, with little tradition of customer-centric thinking are making Customer Relationships (alongside branding) an increasingly high priority. This recognition that growth and market share will be harder to win as the economy slows again rebounds onto employees: "engage personally with key customers/clients" is a top-five strategy worldwide.

  • Workforce matters also color CEOs' more holistic thinking. Asked for the hot-button issues that keep them awake at night, leaders named "diversity in our leadership ranks" as a major priority alongside headline-dominating issues like the rise of Big Data analytics, potential economic depression in Europe, currency volatility, and (among respondents based in the U.S.) healthcare benefits for employees.  

The Conference Board CEO Challenge online, www.ceochallenge.org, features the complete 2013 report and past reports, as well as a full program of supporting content including CEO interviews, a discussion forum, and related research such as the quarterly CEO Confidence Survey. Visit for a calendar of CEO Challenge briefings featuring The Conference Board thought leaders in cities worldwide, available for interested sponsors. 

About The Conference Board

The Conference Board is a global, independent business membership and research association working in the public interest. Our mission is unique: To provide the world's leading organizations with the practical knowledge they need to improve their performance and better serve society. The Conference Board is a non-advocacy, not-for-profit entity holding 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt status in the United States. www.conference-board.org

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