CEOs globally are adopting a worker-centric approach in 2014 to maximise future growth, according to new research from The Conference Board and UK partner CMI (Chartered Management Institute). The findings show the number one priority of business leaders worldwide is a reshaping of workplace culture – with employee engagement and better management at its heart – to improve competitiveness, win new customers and raise productivity,

CEO Challenge 2014, based on a survey of CEOs, presidents, and chairmen from more than 1,000 companies around the world, identifies and ranks the most pressing challenges businesses are facing and their strategies for addressing each. Worldwide, Human Capital — how best to develop, engage, manage, and retain talent — is the leading challenge, followed by the closely linked issues of Customer RelationshipsInnovation, Operational Excellence, and Corporate Brand and Reputation. The research also shows ethical working is high on the agenda, with CEOs rating integrity as the most important leadership attribute.

Contradicting hopes a revival of the labour market will create new openings for those looking for a move, the report shows that CEOs are prioritising the creation of a strong internal talent pipeline rather than seeking to recruit externally. Nine out of the top 10 Human Capital strategies selected globally are focused on current employees, including providing training and development, raising employee engagement and increasing efforts to retain critical talent. The findings also emphasise the importance of management performance, with “improving leadership development programmes” now ranked 5th globally, rising from 10th last year – and being ranked number one by European CEOs when it comes to strategies for building Human Capital.

For the first time this year, CEOs were also asked to identify the leadership attributes most critical to future success. Integrity was rated number one globally, suggesting bosses have learnt lessons from recent high-profile ethical scandals. The other top five most important leadership attributes were leading change, managing complexity, an entrepreneurial mindset and the ability to retain and develop talent.

CMI’s Director of Strategy, Petra Wilton, comments: “Building world-class workforces is a top challenge for CEOs, who are looking to help their organisations hit new levels of performance in 2014. It’s good to see European leaders in particular recognising that leadership development is critical to getting this right. Leadership attributes like integrity, leading change and managing complexity are fundamental to cracking the challenges facing managers and leaders in the year ahead, and will be absolutely key to future success.”

Rebecca Ray, Senior Vice President, Human Capital at The Conference Board, and a co-author of the report, says: “Though particular strategies vary from region to region, business leaders worldwide are working  to optimise their greatest resource—their employees and those who will lead them. This emphasis on people-related issues makes perfect sense in a still-uncertain economy.

“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.”

Petra Wilton continues: “This new global research is a reminder that it’s imperative the UK keeps up with international competitors. The findings reinforce the case for ‘Valuing your Talent’, a new initiative CMI is collaborating on with the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, CIPD, Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, Investors in People and the Royal Society for the Arts. The initiative aims to create practical tools business leaders can use measure and improve their people management and development processes – benefiting individuals, organisations and the UK as a whole. If UK businesses are to get productivity up to pre-recession levels and compete globally, talent development must be a priority.”