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Contending with the impossibility of deprioritization: The reality of modern-day leadership

Deloitte Insights surveyed C-suite execs around the world to see how they’re allocating their corporate investments and found corporate agendas driven by urgent and often conflicting demands.

Bryan Furman

To get a good picture of the complexity of modern-day leadership, consider the numerous and diverse priorities for the C-suite today—from global issues that are reshaping the role that business is taking in society (climate, trust, the future of work, well-being) to critical transformation projects (digital, business model innovation, customer centricity) to the challenges that come with an ever more volatile business environment (supply chain disruption, inflation, geopolitical unrest) to the centrality of earning and maintaining trust across all stakeholders (employees, customers/citizens, suppliers, and governments). Executives told us that they find themselves having to prioritize these issues, and more, all at once.

In June 2022, we surveyed 1,364 C-suite executives in Asia Pacific, Europe, and North America across functions and industries to understand their priorities and vision for their corporate investments. We asked them which of 10 issues they’re focusing on now and in their near-term strategies, and how they rank these priorities. Spoiler alert: None of these priorities can be truly deprioritized.

C-suites’ long lists of to-dos are filled with must-dos

When asked to choose their focus areas among the 10 core business priorities broadly categorized across growth, purpose, people, process, and technology, over 60% of the executives we surveyed chose seven or more priorities, and 25% chose all 10 (figure 1).

And the leaders we surveyed expect the complexity to increase: When asked what they’ll likely be prioritizing in three years, 30% of executives selected all 10 (figure 2).

For most industries in our analysis, the top priority is driving innovation, with maximizing and protecting customer data ranking second. Many respondents expect these top two priorities to remain consistent over the next three years.

This emphasis comes as business leaders are already contending with a packed agenda that includes increased competition, more vocal investors, more empowered consumers, and growing talent challenges, as well as transformative initiatives. In June 2021, 74% of CEOs said their organizations were pursuing large-scale digital transformation initiatives, 71% were investing in workforce transformations, and 46% were prioritizing sustainability-focused transformations, according to a Fortune/Deloitte CEO survey of 110 chief executives across more than 15 industries.

Customer centricity is a top goal

Fast-forward one year later and the executives we surveyed are, across the board, focused on customer experience, new market or product expansion, and existing market or product growth as the expected outcomes from corporate investments—with customer experience ranking first or second for leaders in five out of the six industries we analyzed (figure 3).

It’s hard to prioritize when everything’s a priority

Changing expectations and conflicting priorities are the top two barriers to achieving expected outcomes for every industry and geography in our survey. They outrank a lack of talent or budget, as well as macroeconomic trends that could hinder organizations’ progress—although, those issues also were named as significant barriers by the majority of leaders we surveyed (figure 4).

In the face of these findings, organizations that can build trust and resilience may be better equipped to manage the relentless challenges that come with fast-moving and conflicting targets. The level of trust that an organization has built among board members, investors, employees, customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders is integral to topics ranging from cyber to ESG; compliance; diversity, equity, and inclusion; and product and service quality. Resilience, the ability to thrive amidst continual disruption, is a capability that can help organizations have successful digital and workforce transformations, mitigate and adapt to climate change, and shore up stakeholder trust.

And when everything is a priority, we believe there could be a need for a massive rethink in how organizations will be resilient going forward—not just to respond to a generational crisis, a geopolitical conflict, or a recession, but to thrive in the everyday complexities and challenges of running an organization.

In a world in which there seems to be no “back burner,” how well leaders can manage competing priorities could become a critical differentiator, one that both shapes how organizations evolve and determines which ones thrive.

Data analysis provided by the Deloitte Data Science and Survey Advisory team

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Cover image by: Molly Piersol

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