How Associations Can Respond to Today’s Issues

A new CEO survey finds a lot of anxiety bubbling under some surface optimism. Associations are well-positioned to assist.

Despite an election year on top of economic and global-conflict stresses, leaders today say they’re feeling pretty good about things. According to KPMG’s 2023 CEO Outlook report, released last week, optimism is abundant. A strong majority of global CEOs (73 percent) say they’re “confident about the economy over the next three years.”

There’s a twist, though—the optimism has a lot to do with how the leaders perceive other people are handling their business. As the report points out, “CEOs’ confidence in their own company’s growth prospects are at a three-year low.”

This seeming contradiction—anticipating growth, but sensing it won’t come easily—is likely to have a substantial impact on how companies run their businesses for the foreseeable future. And, by extension, it will affect what issues associations will have to respond to within their industries. 

55 percent of organizations say they’re holding back on AI development, out of concern for how AI systems make decisions.

The biggest issue for the moment is the political and global stage: Survey respondents said “geopolitics and political uncertainty” is the biggest threat to growth over the next three years. That concern will press more organizations to discuss how to respond to global events, and what effective public statements will look like: 61 percent of CEOs said “they would take a public stance on a politically or socially contentious issue, despite board concerns.” (I wrote recently on what goes into an effective public statement.)

CEOs are similarly optimistic yet anxious when it comes to new technologies, particularly generative AI. Leaders are embracing it—70 percent of respondents say they’re “investing heavily” in it—but are doing so uncertainly, with 55 percent of organizations saying they’re holding back out of concern for “how AI systems make decisions.”

The uncertainty among leaders extends also to return-to-office policies and DEI, according to the report. After an intense initial focus around DEI, multiple reports have shown that attention to it has slowed down, perhaps recognizing that addressing diversity challenges involves more systemic changes and not a handful of hires. As the report points out, 72 percent of CEOs say “achieving diversity in workplaces requires implementing a change across the senior leadership level.”

These are challenges, but ones that associations are well-positioned to address. More associations in the past year have developed guidelines for their professions around AI, helping business leaders benefit from the technology’s efficiencies while navigating its ethical and legal risks. Associations that have developed DEI programs are helping individual businesses build leadership pipelines that can stoke real change. 

Associations can’t in themselves resolve a climate crisis, or make the political environment less fraught. It can’t broker a peace agreement. But it’s good news that leaders are recognizing them as important issues, realizing that they’re worth addressing, and that, having navigated the worst of COVID, can address these too. As KPMG CEO Paul Knopp told Marketplace regarding the report, “Over the last four years, there have been a lot of risks and uncertainties and they’ve navigated those well. Businesses have been very resilient. So I think CEOs are feeling very comfortable putting together playbooks to address almost any risk that’s out there today.” The same can be said for the associations that serve them.

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