How HR can tackle CEOs’ biggest stressors

A new survey finds that U.S. executives are most concerned about COVID-19, vaccines and a possible recession.
By: | January 21, 2021 • 3 min read
(Photo by Hugh Hastings/Getty Images)

After the challenges of the last year, it’s easy to look at 2021 as a year that just has to be better—but, that’s not to say that business leaders are operating stress-free.

According to the C-Suite Challenge™ 2021 from the Conference Board, the most stressful external issues on U.S. CEOs’ minds are, unsurprisingly, COVID-19, vaccine availability and the risk for a recession (the survey was conducted before the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol). Internally, American CEOs are most concerned with accelerating the pace of digital transformation, improving innovation and lowering costs. When it comes to HCM-specific challenges, U.S. execs reported being most focused on recruiting and retaining top talent and developing “Next Gen” leaders.

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Compared to their global peers, top U.S. executives also are more eager to have staff return to the physical workplace. Plus, they see the widespread availability of a vaccine as a true game-changer. Among the top global concerns, executives primarily cited COVID-19, recruiting and retaining top talent, recession risk, vaccine availability and accelerating digital transformation. In all, the Conference Board surveyed some 900 CEOs and more than 600 C-suite executives primarily from Europe, Asia and North America.

Looking globally, U.S. executives were less concerned about global political instability and disruptions to global trade but more worried about higher corporate taxes and increased regulation.

On regulation and taxes, U.S. executives saw rising taxes as the 14th top worry in 2020; for 2021 that issue rose to fifth. Increased regulation ranked ninth last year but climbed to fourth in 2021. Global political instability was executives’ top worry in 2020 but dropped to 10th this time (again, this was before the Jan. 6 Capitol attack).

Regarding the executives’ desire for employees’ return to the workplace, Rebecca Ray, executive vice president of human capital at the Conference Board, says a hybrid model with a mix of on-site and remote workers will likely be the new norm.

Related: 4 culture strategies for creating a successful hybrid workplace

“In this environment, as new employees join teams and have little personal contact with existing team members, leaders will need to ensure that all have a sense of belonging,” she warns. “Organizations should take a hard pause to ask themselves: Is the culture we had—and, perhaps, want to preserve—the right culture for this new environment?”

On COVID-19 relief, Dana Peterson, chief economist at the Conference Board, says that while top executives continue to fret about a possible downturn, 2021 is poised to be the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel.

In most regions—especially the United States—respondents believe the distribution of a successful vaccine will have a significant impact on their businesses this year, Peterson says.

“The spread of COVID-19 vaccines will, among other benefits, provide greater clarity and predictability around short-term planning and operations,” she says.

According to Chuck Mitchell, executive director of content quality at the Conference Board, the current COVID-19 crisis means the luxury of having a years-long lead time to digitally transform is gone, perhaps fueling executives’ concern about transformation and innovation.

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However, he adds that investment in digital technology is “only a piece of that puzzle,” noting that organizational culture, enlightened leadership and talent will ultimately create a sustainable competitive advantage.

“Recovery will require finding the right balance between conserving cash and investing in innovation needed to succeed in a new commercial landscape,” Mitchell says.

Tom Starner is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who has been covering the human resource space and all of its component processes for over two decades. He can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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