Briefings Magazine

The Waiting Game

With so many changes ahead, should leaders wait before they act this year?

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By: Russell Pearlman

The numerous board directors, corporate lobbyists, and CEOs Nels Olson works with are inundating him with one question right now: Should they wait to make any big decisions until after the US election?

The DC-based Korn Ferry vice chairman has a standard reply: “Don’t make long-term decisions based on short-term political reality.” But he understands why everyone is asking this question. “Right now, for some leaders, there’s a potentially big cost for moving quickly and being wrong,” he says.

Leaders often ascend the corporate ladder precisely because they’ve been able to act fast and marshal others amid major events or crises. Reversing a big loss in sales, revamping a corporate culture, launching a new suite of products, or overhauling a company to survive a pandemic lockdown—these kinds of scenarios only get solved by moving quickly. Even amid a degree of uncertainty, the downside of waiting can be so much worse than that of taking action.

That, however, is not the situation in which many leaders find themselves in 2024. Call it the Year of the Great Waiting Game, with everything from global elections to interest rates to the future of AI hanging in the balance. It’s all happening at a time when corporate profitability is at an all-time high, which suggests that executives are doing pretty well with the things they can control. But over the next 12 months or so, a lot of the fog around the big-picture issues—the ones leaders can’t control—will likely clear up. So the question is obvious: Will it cost less, in terms of people, money, and anxiety, to wait until some things sort themselves out?

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A willingness to wait is not often considered a valuable leadership quality. Leaders are used to making decisions when they don’t have all the information. Putting them off is often seen as a sign of weakness, one that can sap morale both of executives and rank-and-file employees. “A wait-and-see mindset is costly for all involved,” says Daniel Burrus, an executive-leadership consultant and author of Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible.

But a confluence of events could provide answers to many questions about costs and benefits…if leaders can just wait a little longer. Take artificial intelligence, for instance. AI, which could completely change how humans work, may trigger a so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution. But the early returns, in terms of productivity, have been mixed at best. The costs, on the other hand, have been exorbitant: Firms spent an estimated $90 billion on AI-related investments in 2023. It might take years for some of the earliest big investments to pay off.

At this point, leaders could just stand pat and await the next generation of AI-related tools, many of which likely will address urgent questions about bias, inaccuracy, and data security. And the cost of AI tools may plunge. But waiting carries its own risks. AI adoption requires time, and if a leader delays, a competitor’s workforce that embraces AI could gain an insurmountable head start.

Whether leaders wait or act, experts say, many could benefit from slowing down the speed of their decision-making. In this complex environment, “taking time to evaluate what is actually happening can be incredibly valuable,” says Kevin Cashman, vice chairman of Korn Ferry’s CEO and Enterprise Leadership business.

A little time for reflection also enables leaders to gather additional information. In the case of US elections, for example, the leading candidates have both held the presidency before, which makes gaming out scenarios easier for corporate strategists. “You have a much better sense of how the election would impact the top and bottom lines, because there’s a track record,” Olson says.

Will sitting on the sidelines be easy? Even for the bosses who see the wisdom in doing so, the answer may be no. “Our society has a bias for action over pause, so the counterintuitive stepping-back often takes more discipline,” Cashman says.

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