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U.S. corporate executives are often chastised for sitting on a lot of cash. But the slow and uneven recovery from the recent financial crisis and economic downturn has given them good reason for doing so.

“As demand started to weaken across our markets, we’ve reduced manufacturing to align with the new level,” says Patrick  Ward, CFO of Columbus, Indiana–based Cummins. But that hasn’t stopped the engine manufacturer from making new investments. “Growth is not going to be linear at Cummins,”  Ward explains. “We’re going to go through cycles, and we need to be flexible in how we execute our strategy.  This is a tricky time period.”

Ward is recognized as the best CFO in the Machinery segment by the buy- and sell-side analysts who voted for Institutional Investor’s 2013 All-America Executive Team, our exclusive ranking of the nation’s best CEOs, CFOs and investor relations professionals and teams. And Cummins’s CFO isn’t alone in mastering the crosscurrents of a tricky period.

Even as many executives have decried the lack of clear economic, tax or regulatory policies in Washington, other corporate leaders on this year’s All-America Executive Team have deftly adjusted to uncertainty — unafraid to strike bold deals, prepared to make painful cost cuts. Through a year marked by a persistent euro zone crisis and increasingly volatile growth in emerging markets, along with the fiscal clouds hanging over  Washington, these executives navigate powerful — and often conflicting — business and economic forces. They not only prevail, they prosper.

“We’ve had to be very prudent,” says Stacy Smith, CFO of Intel Corp. But, he adds, “we’ve also had to maintain the courage of our convictions and continue to make investments, even in the midst of a rocky macroeconomic environment.”

In fact, he notes, it’s important to recognize that uncertain climates can benefit a company that knows how to look for the unique opportunities such periods can bring. Adapting to today’s often-austere environment means recognizing that it can offer up not only the best bargains but also plum chances to pull ahead of the pack.

“Paradoxically, uncertainty really opens up opportunities to distance yourself from your competitors,” says Smith, the best CFO in Semiconductors according to the buy side. “When we invest in our factories and extend our leadership over the rest of the industry, there’s an advantage in that. When we make those investments at the same time that others pull back, we get a much bigger advantage.”