Navigating An Uncertain 2024 Business Climate: A Guide For CEOs

The year 2023 has set records for CEO turnover, and many are not surprised. From shareholder activism to global unrest, inflation, fallout from the pandemic and the uncertain impact of AI’s infiltration into the workplace, CEOs face often impossible 24/7 challenges.

“It’s a ‘meatgrinder’ seat to be in, and it often takes time to find ways to navigate all the obstacles along the way,” said Jane Stevenson, Korn Ferry Vice Chair, Board & CEO Services and Global Leader, CEO Succession Practice.

As we approach the sunset of this year and set an eye toward 2024, let’s examine the advice of 20 organizational leaders who recently ascended to the top role. They give insights on what their key areas of focus will be in 2024.

Top three keys to a CEO’s success

The CEOs we surveyed identified three main challenges they faced during their transition into the role: gaps on the senior executive team (88%), a lack of a transformational culture (65%), and unclear strategies and key priorities (53%).

Tackling these issues requires enterprise leadership and the courage to inspire the organization to transform for the future. And according to the CEOs we surveyed, there are three keys to success for both new and veteran CEOs:

1. A CEO must prioritize a clear purpose.

“Define a clear north star, and then align the organization.” – Rania Llewellyn, CEO, Laurentian Bank of Canada

Executives who prioritize a company’s purpose and values are more likely to be effective leaders. In fact, 88% of CEOs we surveyed believe having a clear purpose and vision contributed to their success as a new CEO.  Although driving business decisions based on purpose may cost the company in the short term, a purpose-driven strategy will likely provide long-term gains—whether related to impeccable customer service or supporting ESG initiatives. As Robert Soto, CEO of Estée Lauder Mexico, told us: “A clear purpose allows you to tolerate when things are going wrong. We have the ability to build—build for the future, build for the business.”

Yet, there is another reason why connecting to a company’s purpose is integral to a CEO’s success as a leader. According to Korn Ferry research, leaders who are more connected to the organization’s purpose are more likely to be seen as authentic. With authenticity comes trust, and with trust comes loyalty from employees and customers alike.

In our interviews, we learned that CEOs who were true to themselves were better able to navigate times of uncertainty and build trust among their team. This includes authentically representing and supporting the company purpose rather than simply paying it lip service—like engaging in greenwashing or failing to meet espoused commitments to diversity and inclusion, for example. Thanks to our digitally enabled world, where information is accessible in seconds, an inauthentic leader can go viral—and in a bad way—if their words don’t match the actions of their company. During a time when attracting top talent is already a challenge, being seen as inauthentic can have irrevocable harm on the company’s and the CEO’s brand. In the words of Scott Uzzell, CEO of Converse: “Authenticity is a lifestyle, a passion, not profession….”

2. A CEO must focus on the top team.

“You can’t have a high-performing team without people owning their KPIs.”  Mark Wakeford, CEO, IndoAgri

More than half (53%) of the leaders we surveyed said having a strong senior leadership team was crucial to their effectiveness as a new CEO. And the CEOs agreed that selecting executives for their team went beyond considering ability. Leaders, they said, should be inclusive and intentional about gauging how candidates will fit the team dynamic. “I demand integrity of myself, and I value building better teams and inclusive cultures,” FuelCell Energy CEO Jason Few told us in an interview. “I think about the voices I need around the table, throughout the organization. We cannot all look alike. That’s how we get the best results.”

As we spoke with CEOs, a clear theme emerged: take the time needed to focus on the executive team. The leaders shared multiple perspectives of how best to ensure, as a CEO, that they have the right people in the right roles. When establishing a high-performing C-Suite, the executives advised, a newly appointed CEO should first have a clearly articulated and aligned strategy, and secondly, make sure their team is on board with the vision for the company. Then, they should set the right key performance indicators (KPIs) for each executive team member, which should be reviewed regularly. New CEOs should also avoid micromanaging and build trust among the team by providing the tools they need to be successful.

Korn Ferry’s research on top team alignment reinforces their advice. A high-performing top team can advance the CEO’s agenda more quickly, making the organization nimbler and more responsive to market changes.

3. A CEO must drive transformation.

“I want us to be better tomorrow than today…” Deborah Dunsire, CEO, Lundbeck

To drive a culture of transformation, leaders must create an environment that embraces change and encourages innovation at every level of the organization. We heard from executives that, as a CEO, it is important to make people comfortable telling you what is wrong, so you do not work on the wrong priorities. It is about creating a mindset where leaders and employees alike are willing to challenge the status quo and continuously look for ways to improve.

Transformational companies require enterprise leaders who, through empathy and compassion, can unite the organization behind a common purpose. Leaders who are catalysts empower their teams, their organizations, and their entire ecosystem to transform in order to maximize the organization’s full value and potential.

Transformation does not happen overnight. According to 71% of the CEOs we surveyed, it takes leaders with a strong presence and communication skills to model the values, behaviors, and practices that define how people within the organization interact, partnering with employees at all levels to inspire a culture of transformation. Other critical competencies for a successful transformation include attracting top talent (65%), embodying a strategic mindset (53%), and managing complexity (47%). The long-term result can lead to the benefits of innovation at a time when it matters most.

Effectively fostering a culture of transformation is an important KPI for CEOs to help ensure the organization remains relevant to its employees, customers and other key stakeholders —now and in the future.

As CEOs advance their companies and rise to meet their organization’s ever-changing challenges, prioritizing purpose, focusing on the top team, and driving transformation are all critical elements for achieving success. By taking a strategic and intentional approach to these areas, CEOs will create the innovative, growth-oriented and purpose-driven organizations of the future.

Elise Schroeter, Lars Ronn and Lydia Glover

Elise Schroeter is Korn Ferry Global Head of Organization and Talent Strategy for the Board and CEO Practice. Lars Ronn is Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner. Lydia Glover is Korn Ferry Associate Client Partner.

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Elise Schroeter, Lars Ronn and Lydia Glover

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