Top executives in Europe and the U.S. say global political and economic risk, and government regulation are their most pressing concerns, while Asian CEOs name innovation as their top challenge, closely followed by human capital—attracting, retaining, and rewarding talent. So finds The Conference Board’s “CEO Challenge 2012,” a global survey of business leaders, which discovered striking differences in focus and strategy between Asia’s emerging economies and the mature economies of the West. The complete findings of the annual survey were announced in a recent report.
Between September and December 2011, CEOs, presidents, and chairmen from the world’s leading companies were asked to identify the most pressing challenges they face in today’s business environment. Nearly 800 survey respondents then named their top strategies for addressing each problem, creating a dynamic picture of executive thinking across continents and industries.
“The divergence between regions in ‘CEO Challenge 2012’ is illuminating,” says Bart van Ark, executive vice president and chief economist for The Conference Board, and a co-author of the report. “While American and European CEOs continue to focus on issues related to the eurozone debt crisis and a changing regulatory environment, their counterparts in Asia appear to be addressing core factors to advance business growth.
“It seems Asian companies hoping to sustain recent success into the long-term are turning inward to improve their pipelines of innovation and world-class talent,” says van Ark. “Faced with a fragile recovery—or, in Europe, renewed recession—Western leaders are understandably more worried about external shocks and pressures.”
Leaders in each of the three regions surveyed named a different top challenge for 2012:
• In the United States, CEOs say government regulation is the most critical challenge they face, followed by global political and economic risk, innovation, and human capital. CEOs are viewing the growing uncertainty of the overall regulatory environment as a hindrance to long-term planning.
• European CEOs cite global political and economic risk as their primary challenge, followed by innovation and government regulation, with cost optimization and global expansion tied for fourth. Europe was the only region not to rank human capital concerns in its top five.
• Among Asian CEOs, the most critical challenge is innovation, followed closely by human capital. Global expansion and sustainability tied for third place. In a time of rapid economic development and change for the continent, Asia was the only region to rank sustainability as a top-five challenge for 2012.
“In Asia, it’s become clear to leaders that internal talent development—creating the effective leadership to drive business results—is a critical key to success,” says Rebecca Ray, senior vice president for human capital at The Conference Board, and a co-author of the report. “This is particularly true in China and India, where CEOs rated human capital as their primary challenge, as well as in service and manufacturing industries worldwide, where human capital concerns are playing a critical role in a firms’ path toward continued growth.”
In addition to interregional discrepancies, priorities also varied—sometimes dramatically—with company size and industry, as well as between countries in the same region.
Despite these differences at the top, “CEO Challenge 2012” revealed a number of broad global trends. Overall, CEOs cited innovation, human capital, global and economic risk, government regulation, and global expansion as the top five most critical challenges they face.
Across industries and geographies, innovation—of products, processes, organization designs, and business models—was never far from executives’ minds. Moreover, CEOs perceive innovation to be intimately linked to other challenges. Intriguingly, even as they continue to identify technology as the No. 1 driver of innovation, many leaders are exploring ways to leverage human capital to gain an innovation edge on competitors. From marketing and communications to working conditions and training, nourishing the human element of innovation appears to be gaining steam as a long-term strategy.
“One key finding of this year’s survey is a growing awareness that collaboration, with both traditional and nontraditional partners, is a requirement to achieve growth and remain competitive,” says Jonathan Spector, president and CEO of The Conference Board. “The importance of networks—business, personal, formal, and informal—is growing, and alliances between businesses, governments, competitors, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and labor unions are requiring a higher level of trust and interdependency that shatters the old-fashioned ‘leader-knows-best’ models.”
Underscoring the realities of operating in a truly borderless business environment, global expansion rose to a top-five challenge for CEOs worldwide. For 2012 the interdependence of regions, companies, consumers, and supply chains will continue to grow tighter, but leaders must also address a newer phenomenon: the shift in wealth creation from the developed to the developing world. Indeed, where global markets were once the domain of the largest multinationals, “CEO Challenge 2012” found that smaller and medium-sized companies are increasingly cognizant that staying competitive means expanding beyond home borders.
The Conference Board’s CEO Challenge online features the complete 2012 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 the Coference Board website to view a calendar of CEO Challenge briefings, featuring The Conference Board thought leaders in cities worldwide, available for interested sponsors.