The worst of the financial crisis may be over and the recovery, weak as it has been, still on track. But corporate executives continue to find themselves in an ominous setting.

Uncertainties abound both in the U.S. and abroad over everything from consumer demand to government regulation and policy. This makes for a landscape that is both less stark than that of 2008 and 2009 and more ambiguous. In crunch mode executives did well to hunker down, focus on the short-term and work on controlling costs. Managements now, however, must engage in longer-term strategizing—a tall order when the outlook holds so many what-ifs.

Conference Board CEO Jonathan Spector believes today’s conditions may present even larger and more difficult challenges than the financial crisis did.

“During the crisis the decision-­making framework needed to operate was somewhat clearer, given the incredible sense of urgency,” Spector says. “Now the environment is more complicated because we have the prospect of a very sustained period that’s not quite a crisis. It’s less clear what the obvious path is.”

Gregory Hayes, chief financial officer at Hartford, ­Connecticut–based conglomerate United Technologies Corp., is one top executive who has found that to be true.

“I never want to live through 2009 again,” says Hayes, whose company makes products ranging from elevators and refrigeration units to airplane engines and fire-­protection systems. “But when you have this sluggish growth, this uncertain environment, it’s hard to know where you should invest, or how much you should invest. It’s certainly more challenging now.”

....