2023 was anything but smooth in the corporate world. Navigating the post-pandemic workplace has proven a challenge for everybody, particularly business leaders. Add to this the unstable economy, and it’s clear that last year was no walk in the park for businesses and the individuals behind them.
Many CEOs came under heavy fire because of poor business decisions they made. Among them, three examples stand out as cautionary tales of modern management.
1. Employee Strikes at General Motors
In 2023, collective organising was at its highest level since 2019, resulting in several high-profile strikes, including an employee strike at General Motors.
Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, negotiated an agreement with United Auto Workers (UAW) six weeks into the strike. However, the company had already lost over £795 billion by then, and many argued this was too little too late.
The strikes at GM indicate a wider theme of 2023, which saw big companies underestimating the power of their workers. Many companies saw major revenue losses while strikes dragged on for weeks and months.
Although Barra remains GM’s CEO, many lost faith in her leadership and criticised her failure to anticipate and resolve the strikes more effectively. This example serves as a cautionary tale for business leaders to listen to their workers and find common ground so relationships can be strengthened rather than irrevocably damaged.
2. Dramatic cost-cutting at Warner Bros Discovery
Often, CEOs are brought in to shake up the status quo, which is precisely what happened in the Warner Bros and Discovery merger. David Zaslav oversaw this merger, and his tactics rattled many industry insiders.
Faced with over $55 billion of debt, Zaslav issued significant cuts, including cancelling films that had already been made and making mass layoffs. His actions ruffled a lot of feathers and even led to a summit meeting between Zaslav and the legendary filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Zaslav appeared to be making enemies out of everyone, including extremely powerful filmmakers. His actions may even have contributed to the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG) strikes that shut down the industry for most of the year.
This is yet warning against business leaders underestimating the power of those around them and prioritising budget cuts over all else. The result of Zaslav’s actions saw him brandished as a Hollywood villain and an enemy of the film industry.
3. A hostile takeover at X
In 2023, Elon Musk rebranded the social media platform to “X”, laid off around 80% of staff, and lost an estimated $75m in advertising revenue. It’s fair to say that the billionaire founder of Tesla and Space X made some pretty questionable decisions during his takeover of Twitter.
Musk made an error in judgement trying to disrupt such a pre-established company with a loyal following, set protocols and ethos. Unlike his other companies, Twitter was already a strong brand with a very different leadership style.
Unconventional behaviour is often commended when it comes from visionary business leaders. However, as CEO, Musk became very unpredictable, and X saw a significant decline in monthly users and advertising revenue during his tenure.
Taking lessons into 2024
As the business landscape continues to evolve, so has the role of the leader. Business leaders now face greater stakeholder demands, and economic instability adds to the pressure.
The corporate failings of 2024 may provide some guidance, though – even if it’s simply what not to do.
Leaders should strive to serve the organisation and its employees. Failures arise when communication breaks down and relationships become strained. Perhaps the greatest lesson from last year is that employees need to feel included, respected and heard.
This is key to being a great leader that achieves great results in 2024.