People power the top priority for CEOs in 2014

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According to CEO Challenge 2014, a survey of CEOs, presidents and chairmen from more than 1,000 companies around the world, the most pressing challenge their businesses are facing in the year ahead is how to best develop, engage, manage and retain talent.

The research from The Conference Board also highlights that ethical working is high on the agenda, with CEOs rating integrity as the most important leadership attribute. The other top five leadership attributes were leading change, managing complexity, an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to retain and develop talent.

The focus appears to be on developing what is already in place, with nine out of the top 10 human capital strategies focusing on current employees, including providing training and development, raising employee engagement and increasing efforts to retain critical talent. Mirroring this, the creation of a strong internal talent pipeline rather than seeking to recruit externally is considered a priority.

The findings also emphasise the importance of management performance, with "improving leadership development programmes" now ranked fifth globally (up five places from last year) and placed at number one by European CEOs when it comes to strategies for building human capital.

The survey also found that CEOs are placing greater priority than ever on cultivating and retaining their customers, with customer relationships the second on their overall list of priorities. According to Bart van Ark, the Conference Board's chief economist, this suggests that the era of cost-cutting is finally coming to an end and that companies are positioning themselves for growth.

As the Conference Board pointed out, however, developing and engaging employees and providing a good customer experience are essentially flip-sides of the same coin. Companies that still don't encourage their front-line employees to improve customer service "are not grasping that the customer-facing people are the brand".

According to Rebecca Ray, Senior Vice President at The Conference Board and co-author of the report: "Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development, and high performance is something companies can control, and is making 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."

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