A new global survey of CEOs finds that “geopolitical uncertainty” has risen to the No. 2 concern for top corporate executives. And as chaos spreads, from terrorism to wars, the report from PricewaterhouseCoopers poses five “tough questions” any CEO worth a paycheck – from startup to multi-national – ought to be thinking about. Especially as the stock market keeps melting.

Here’s what John Chambers, the executive chair of Cisco, describes as the “new normal” in the survey, which was released at the annual Davos World Economic Conference:

“Are we in an environment where change will take place at tremendous speed, whether it’s economic leadership, challenges of emerging countries or developed countries, political unrest, challenges with extremist views around the world, new technology, or new business models?

“That is the new normal.

“Companies and countries that will lead this new normal have to deal with an environment where there’s constant change, and be able to adjust to those at a faster and faster pace.”

The “tough questions”

Here are what PwC describes as “tough questions to ask about growth in complicated times:”

  • Have you adjusted your operational model to accommodate future potential increases to your cost of capital as interest rates rise and currency markets become more volatile?
  • Are you tracking the right risks around new political dynamics such as geopolitical uncertainty and cybersecurity as they replace concerns related to coping with the financial crisis?
  • What’s your organization doing to prepare itself to respond to and recover from crisis?
  • Do you have a strategy in place for a more divergent world where authority and influence are more widely distributed?
  • How are you preparing your organization to face non-traditional competitors now and in the future?

A global snapshot

Duke’s Fuqua Business School teams with CFO Magazine and the American Institute for Certified Public Accountants publish regular surveys that are good barometers of what’s coming in business. But the PwC survey of more than 1,400 CEOs provides insight at the very pinnacles of corporate thinking. And the CEOs don’t paint a collective pretty picture.

Optimism about growth has plunged to 27 percent from 37 percent since last year.

Pessimists about growth have grown tp 23 percent from 17 percent.

Just over a third – 35 percent – of CEOS are “very confident: about short-term growth. A year ago, the figure was 39 percent.

Concern about over-regulation in particular is still highest, cited by 79% of CEOs – making it the fourth year in a row that it’s risen.

PwC’s overview

“Seven years on from the global financial crisis, the business landscape still hasn’t really returned to what it was. Will it ever? Last year regulation, skills, national debt, geopolitical uncertainty and taxes topped CEOs’ list of concerns about threats to business growth. None of these have gone away this year. In fact, the level of worry is higher today than at any point in the past five years,” PwC warns.

“Geopolitical uncertainty has become the second biggest concern, cited by 74% of business leaders. This comes at a time when terror attacks are increasing and touching every part of the world, many linked to the heightened conflict in Iraq and Syria.”

Foreign exchange “volatility” is third highest concern for CEOs at 73 percent.

But social insecurity and cyber security also rank highly.

“Global conflicts are also connected to anxieties about social instability and readiness to respond to crises, named by 65% and 61% of CEOs, respectively,” PwC says.

“Cyber security is also a worry for 61% of CEOs, representing as it does threats to both national and commercial interests.”

What will you do?

So you really want to be a CEO someday?

Or, CEOs, are you thinking early retirement?

How will you answer those “tough questions” if you plan to stay in the job?

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