While it’s easy to find news about the top lead­ers of most coun­tries, those who are at the top of busi­ness­es rarely make news unless it’s about a com­pa­ny break­through or the oppo­site, a com­pa­ny scan­dal. Yet there are thou­sands of CEOs around the world, who col­lec­tive­ly lead mil­lions of employ­ees. What are these lead­ers think­ing?

The PwC con­sul­tan­cy (@PwC_LLC) has, for 16 years, been sur­vey­ing CEOs and issu­ing annu­al reports. What is PwC? Per their web­site: “We’re a net­work of firms in 158 coun­tries with more than 180,000 peo­ple who are com­mit­ted to deliv­er­ing qual­i­ty in assur­ance, tax and advi­so­ry ser­vices.” What is its Annu­al Glob­al CEO Sur­vey? Again, per their web­site:

In total, we con­duct­ed 1,330 inter­views with CEOs in 68 coun­tries between 5 Sep­tem­ber and 4 Decem­ber 2012. By region, 449 inter­views were con­duct­ed in Asia Pacif­ic, 312 in West­ern Europe, 227 in North Amer­i­ca, 165 in Latin Amer­i­ca, 95 in Cen­tral and East­ern Europe, 50 in Africa and 32 in the Mid­dle East. The inter­views were spread across a range of indus­tries, with fur­ther details by region and indus­try, avail­able on request. To bet­ter appre­ci­ate CEOs’ per­spec­tives for 2013, we also con­duct­ed in-depth inter­views with 33 CEOs from five con­ti­nents over the fourth quar­ter of 2012, and more exten­sive extracts can be found in this web­site where you can explore respons­es by sec­tor and loca­tion.

PwC’s full report is, as you might guess, exten­sive. It’s “key find­ings” can be scanned quick­ly, though [link]. Here’s my own quick take from review­ing the PwC find­ings.

Most of the CEOs do not see much chance of robust eco­nom­ic growth in the com­ing year. The list of glob­al con­cerns is a long one. Prob­lems abound. Solu­tions, not so much.

Most are wor­ried about unex­pect­ed bad things hap­pen­ing (“cat­a­stroph­ic events, eco­nom­ic and pol­i­cy threats, and com­mer­cial threats”). Says PwC: “We asked CEOs about their organisation’s abil­i­ty to cope with a range of dis­rup­tive sce­nar­ios. Most felt their organ­i­sa­tion would be neg­a­tive­ly impact­ed, with major social unrest being cause for the great­est con­cern.”

Most know that inter­nal changes are need­ed, that the sta­tus quo oper­a­tional poli­cies and prac­tices of their firms won’t be suf­fi­cient in the future. Says PwC: “That’s why near­ly half of CEOs say improv­ing oper­a­tional effec­tive­ness is one of their top-three invest­ment pri­or­i­ties this year.”

Yet, many (between 20 – 30 per cent) embrace opti­mism that their com­pa­nies can grow, and the top two ways these CEOs said they could do that is via (1) “new prod­uct or ser­vice devel­op­ment” and (2) “organ­ic growth in exist­ing domes­tic market[s]”.

The CEOs know that cus­tomers are key to their future. Saws PwC: “So it’s no won­der that 82% of CEOs are look­ing for new ways to stim­u­late cus­tomer demand and loy­al­ty this year.”

Last­ly, many CEOs are wor­ried about trust, which PwC pro­files in impres­sive detail: “… CEOs know they have to repair the bridges between busi­ness and soci­ety. The glob­al finan­cial cri­sis and ques­tion­able behav­iour of some com­pa­nies have bad­ly dam­aged faith in insti­tu­tions of every kind. And this is impact­ing on their brand val­ue and per­for­mance. Indeed, 37% of CEOs are con­cerned that lack of trust in their indus­try could endan­ger their company’s growth.”

bigstock-The-saying-or-motto-Change-is--36518128It’s not easy to lead a coun­try these days, if it ever was. And, in many ways, PwC’s find­ings demon­strate that it’s also a chal­lenge to lead a busi­ness of any sub­stan­tial scale. That’s why you can actu­al­ly find lists of CEOs whom some say will (or should) be fired. On the list pub­lished 26 ecem­ber 2012 by 24/7 Wall St., the first CEO on its list is Ron John­son, who was just dis­missed by the depart­ment store chain, J.C. Pen­ney.

The pres­sure being felt by CEOs in gen­er­al, and espe­cial­ly those fac­ing high degrees of dis­rup­tive ambi­gu­i­ty, is relent­less and even esca­lat­ing in 2013. The busi­ness philoso­pher Joseph Schum­peter spoke of “gales of cre­ative destruc­tion”, which implies that — soon­er or lat­er — all lead­ers (and lead­ing com­pa­nies) will stum­ble and fall.

Is any CEO safe?

And what of the com­pa­nies they lead?

And their many employ­ees?

My sense is that dif­fer­ent CEOs with dis­tinct lega­cy chal­lenges will face quite dif­fer­ent chal­lenges. How­ev­er, all CEOs must face the uncer­tain­ty of dis­rup­tive change and have less time than they would like to sort things out. The first prob­lem to address is how to think about what needs to hap­pen next in order to steer safe­ly into the future. For CEOs, this is not an option. As so many envi­ron­men­tal web­sites declare, “Extinc­tion is for­ev­er.”

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