Top Concerns for U.S. CEOs in 2020

Nicholas J Price

The start of a new year gives U.S. CEOs reason to pause and reflect on the trends, challenges and successes over the past year. That reflection includes an evaluation of how the trends and challenges of 2019 may carry over into top concerns for U.S. CEOs in 2020 and how they will impact companies' goals and strategic plans.

On an encouraging note, the U.S. stock market ended 2019 closing high. Moving into 2020, CEOs will continue to have some external and internal concerns. While CEOs will take some hints of caution into the new year, they should also take a healthy dose of optimism.

Top Concerns for U.S. CEOs in 2020

According to a survey of 740 CEOs of the Conference Board, a business research group, the top worry for CEOs is a recession. Economic decline landed in third place for other U.S. chief executives. Both positions were unmoved from 2018.

Business leaders are feeling a great deal of anxiety about the uncertain future of the finance world. The concern is causing executives to feel immense pressure around several issues, including trade and climate change. Bart van Ark, chief economist at the Conference Board, shared the fact that growth in domestic product dropped slightly from 2.3% to 3% the world over. The Conference Board predicts that global growth will increase somewhat this year, perhaps to 2.5%.

The report warns that rampant fears among executives can have consequences for the economy whether they're justified or not. Continued worry over a recession can create a recession mindset among executives. A hardened mindset can often turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Top Internal Concerns for 2020

CEOs agree that their top internal concern and priority for 2020 is attracting and retaining top talent. Regardless of a company's size, location or industry, CEOs and other C-suite executives across the globe will be looking for ways to keep top talent and recruit for the same. The battle for top-quality talent is largely due to having a tight labor market.

Companies will need to be more strategic in their efforts to recruit and retain top talent. Many companies are already struggling to find employees who have the skills in the right areas for their jobs. On the flip side, jobseekers are becoming more hesitant to leave their region out of fear of uprooting themselves. Artificial intelligence will likely become a valuable human resources tool in the coming years.

Another of the CEOs' internal concerns is placing a greater focus on developing innovative products and cultures. On a global scale, CEOs and top executives placed creating new business models because of disruptive technologies right behind retaining top talent. Also, CEOs and other C-suite executives around the world agreed that creating a more innovative culture was their No. 3 internal priority.

Around the world, corporate leaders are making a commitment to cultivating leaders of the future. Developing 'next-gen' leaders was the No. 4 top internal priority across the world, with one exception ' Japan. CEOs from Japan ranked retaining top talent as their No. 1 priority.

The survey also indicated some gender differences in internal priorities. Women in C-suite positions were more concerned about assuring equal pay for equal work. This was the No. 6 top internal priority for women. Men ranked the same issue as their No. 15 top priority.

Concerns About Global Trade

Although relations in some parts of the world appear to be improving, concerns are lingering around the effects of changes in global trade. The first-stage trade deal between the United States and China under the Trump administration gave many corporate leaders around the world a new sense of confidence. Others are only mildly encouraged.

In China, the CEOs that were surveyed by the Conference Board ranked global trade as their top external concern, and it tied with recession risk for the top spot. American CEOs tied global trade with global political instability and ranked both in the fourth spot for top external concerns. They indicated the manufacturing industry feels the bulk of the uncertainty.

Last November, at the annual investor day at Salesforce Inc., their CEO, Marc Benioff, stated that he'd spoken with over 100 CEOs who agreed that trade was their top concern. Benioff described the current climate as a 'strange economic time.' He explained his reasoning by saying that all executives have a few question marks when trade issues become concerning. Adding their agreement, James Dimon of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Miles White from Abbott Laboratories admitted that they were worried about trade with China and other global trade agreements.

Cybersecurity Concerns

Cybersecurity has been a growing concern in recent years. The frequency of cyberattacks continues to plague all types of organizations, and the sophistication of the attacks is gaining ground. Corporations are planning ahead for larger cybersecurity budgets, but large percentages of organizations lack clarity on the best strategies for defense and response.

Over 70% of the CEOs who responded to the survey indicated that they would be increasing their budgets for cybersecurity in 2020. At the same time, nearly 40% of the responding CEOs reported that their organizations didn't have clear plans to address the financial or reputational impact of a data breach or cyberattack.

Moving into the Future with Caution

Stress is bound to plague CEOs as uncertainty over trade trickles down to all kinds of companies and industries. Many companies are struggling with a lack of guidance about how they can best move forward, which makes it difficult to make big investments.

CEOs also indicated that they were concerned about other things such as intensified competition, the tight labor market and political instability around the world. New tensions are building around Latin America, Hong Kong and the Middle East. In the United Kingdom, there will likely be less concern about the impact of Brexit, at least until trade negotiations begin again.

Of course, CEOs will not be able to control some of the issues that create their deepest worries. What they can do is to work on developing more innovative cultures and new business models to manage the issues that are within their power to change.

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Nicholas J. Price
Nicholas J. Price is a former Manager at Diligent. He has worked extensively in the governance space, particularly on the key governance technologies that can support leadership with the visibility, data and operating capabilities for more effective decision-making.