CEOs across the globe cite growing the business as the most critical challenge they face, according to the results of the CEO Challenge 2011, a research report issued by The Conference Board, a New York-based research association.

The Conference Board’s 12th annual CEO survey targeted more than 700 CEOs, presidents and chairmen from across geographies and industries, who identified the most pressing issues they face in today’s business environment.

“Now more than ever, business leaders are turning to new ideas, products and markets to fuel growth, drive innovation, and remain competitive on the global stage,” said Jonathan Spector, CEO of The Conference Board.

Spector suggests putting the findings into the context of recent global events – the Japan earthquake and nuclear threat, political distress in the energy-rich Middle East, labor unrest and wage pressures in Asia, and the ongoing sovereign debt crisis in Europe -- noting that it becomes even more clear why crisis management, flexibility and agility need to be part of the fabric of any corporation or government.

“While it will take time before the full impact of Japan’s tragedy or potential disruption of Middle Eastern energy supplies on global and regional economies can be measured, the effort to meet the top five challenges singled out by CEOs in our survey just got even harder,” Spector added.

Following growth, the next four most highly ranked challenges on the global level include talent, cost optimization, innovation and government regulation.

After two years of the global economic crisis, talent has re-emerged as a top challenge. CEOs selected the internally-focused actions of improving leadership development/growing talent internally, enhancing the effectiveness of the senior team, providing employee training and development and improving leadership succession as the key strategies to address talent challenges, ahead of hiring more talent in the open market, notes the report.

“Consensus among CEOs was clear: having the right talent will make a critical difference in executing against any of today’s business challenges,” says Rebecca Ray, Ph.D., managing director of human capital at The Conference Board.

These growth-related concerns also ranked high on the regional level in the United States, Europe and Asia.

• In the U.S., CEOs say government regulation is the most critical challenge they face, second to business growth. CEOs are viewing the growing degree of regulation as both an obstruction for growth and an incentive to force innovation and create opportunity.

• European CEOs cite cost optimization as the key issue, second to growth, amid generally slower emergence from the global recession and structural issues surrounding markets and labor.

• Among Asian CEOs, the most critical challenge they face is talent – attracting it, retaining it and rewarding it – in a time of rapid economic development and change.

“In the 2010 survey, it was clear that the focus of CEOs had moved from crisis reaction to preparations for recovery,” said Bart van Ark, The Conference Board Chief Economist. “This year, we see an even further concern for driving business growth after years of scaling back and, in some cases, focusing on survival during the global recession.”

Unlike previous CEO Challenge surveys, the 2011 survey for the first time asked CEOs to identify strategies that are best suited to deal with their top challenges. The wide range of strategies selected highlights the growing complexity of the global business environment and the need for the coordinated interaction of diverse parts within organizations themselves. Talent management and innovation emerged as the most critical vehicles for implementing business growth strategies.

In conjunction with the release of the survey, The Conference Board has launched a new CEO Challenge microsite, which, in addition to the complete 2011 report and past reports, will also offer a full program of content and report-related events including CEO interviews, a discussion forum, related research such as the CEO Confidence Survey, and Thought Leadership Briefings.