by Matt Alderton | February 12, 2019
When you're a CEO, it's your job to lead your company and represent it to the world. Also, it's your job to worry. Like a human weather vane, it's up to you to judge which winds are blowing and in what direction, so your company can decide whether to lean into the breeze, steer around it or dig its heels in and resist.

To determine what specific headwinds companies are facing, the Conference Board conducts an annual survey of more than 800 CEOs and more than 600 other C-level executives, each of whom is asked to share what issues are keeping them up at night, both external to their company and internal to it. Published last month, this year's report -- "C-Suite Challenge 2019" -- found that CEOs' top external concern for 2019 is a new recession, the threat of which just last year was ranked No. 19 on their list of concerns.

Other external concerns that are giving CEOs heartburn this year are threats to global trade, which came in second on their list globally; global political instability, which came in third among global CEOs and first among European CEOs; and cyber security, which topped American CEOs' list of concerns.

As for internal concerns, CEOs globally are most rattled by the challenge of attracting and retaining top talent. That's followed by the need to create new business models due to disruptive technology, the challenge of developing the next generation of leaders, and the need to better align compensation and incentives with business performance.

"While CEOs are quite anxious about the external challenges the global economy poses to their businesses right now, the survey results suggest they're aware of the need to stay focused on the longer-term disruptive forces impacting their future go-to-market plans," said report coauthor Bart van Ark, the Conference Board's chief economist. "That awareness reinforces the need to continue the development of new business models, a strategy that will be tempting to neglect if and when the economy starts slowing."

Added one of van Ark's coauthors, executive vice president of human capital Rebecca Ray, "As global competition increases while the pool of available workers decreases, it comes as no surprise that executives cited talent as a top issue in 2019 that's keeping them up at night. Moreover, they think talent shortages will only intensify beyond 2019, which underscores why organizations should constantly reexamine how they're attracting and retaining their best and brightest."     

The Conference Board also asked CEOs to weigh in on the future: Globally, CEOs said succeeding in the year 2025 will require their companies to pivot from focusing on products to focusing on the customer experience. To that end, two-thirds of CEOs acknowledged the importance of "servitization" -- providing services and solutions that supplement traditional product offerings.

Other future-focused findings:

• CEOs said the companies that are most efficient in the years ahead will be the ones that can best balance long-term vision with short-term performance.

•  American executives notwithstanding, CEOs globally predict increasing regulation ahead, particularly in the areas of data-privacy protection (84 percent), environmental impact (80 percent), unmanned aerial vehicles (72 percent) and autonomous vehicles (71 percent).

• The key to managing future workforces will be developing agile project teams, according to HR executives.

• In order to develop future leaders, CEOs believe their organizations must provide more cross-functional rotational opportunities.

Concluded report coauthor Chuck Mitchell, executive director of knowledge, content and quality at the Conference Board, "CEOs sense fundamental changes coming in the expectations and preferences of future customers. They see the importance of moving from a product-central approach to servitization to enhance the customer experience. This approach turns customers involved in one-time transactions into 'users' who seek continuous interaction with the firms they deal with. But that bar is high, since they are now competing with the best experience a consumer has had with any company, regardless of product or service. It widens the field of competitors in unexpected ways."