We all have a vision of the disgruntled employee who triumphantly declares, “I quit!” But what happens when the top boss decides to depart? That’s a challenge now faced by an unprecedented number of companies, as a record number of CEOs have left the top job this year. More than 1,400 chief executives have departed this year, according to executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a 50% increase over 2021.
That’s not so surprising according to talent consultants, who’ve seen the landscape shift in recent years. “Leading a company today is no walk in the park. With layoffs, companies facing turmoil, and the world's watchful eye, it's often lonely at the top,” says Brianna Rooney, CEO and founder of TalentPerch. “CEOs today operate under intense scrutiny and enormous pressure. Every word they say is dissected and can have significant consequences. Miscommunication or a single misstep can result in severe backlash.”
But avoiding backlash is increasingly complicated. More than half of Gen Z and Millennials believe brands should get involved in social issues, but this leaves leaders in a tricky spot when younger customers and employees demand action, while cautious shareholders and older consumers may have conflicting values. Even behemoths like Disney, Bud Light and Adidas have struggled to win back their brand reputation in recent years after their marketing campaigns sparked controversy.
Managing these kinds of conflicting pressures can be even more intense for women CEOs, who must navigate the fine line between “aggressive” and “assertive” and must also avoid falling off the Glass Cliff. (Women CEOs still depart earlier than male CEOS, leaving after 6.3 years on average compared to 8.4 years for men.)
But the wave of CEO departures also presents a unique opportunity for women. In fact, Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that 31% of new CEOs were women in the first two months of 2023, an all-time high, and up from 26% in 2022.
But if women are to succeed in this role — and not burn out like so many of their contemporaries — they must acknowledge the new kinds of pressures they’re likely to face and recognize the opportunities available in a fast-changing landscape.
One of the reasons more women are being promoted to the top job is because companies are finally recognizing that diversity is good for business, and having women board members and CEOs has been proven to increase corporate diversity. But just because a woman is in charge doesn’t mean fostering an inclusive culture is easy, and the expectation can create additional pressures and scrutiny.
“Culture turnaround or transformation are extremely difficult problems to solve, particularly if they relate to toxic work environments or workforces devoid of diversity and inclusion,” explains Heather Matalon, CEO of NAV and co-author of Navigating Career Negotiations. “Often left unchecked or ignored for years, these cultural issues can solidify to a point where significant or even drastic organizational changes become imperative.”
When women leaders work to make these necessary changes, they can be poorly received, particularly in the current business climate when the legality of diversity initiatives is being openly questioned, she says.
For women who inherit these legacy challenges, the best thing they can do is build opportunities for growth and advancement. Matalon suggests completing a comprehensive analysis of the workforce assets and resources with a focus on identifying team members whose value is being compromised under the current management structure.
“Empowering these individuals by providing a fresh start under new external hires or new advancement opportunities (while not ‘curing’ the legacy issue) will ultimately lead to a more diverse and equitable corporate culture,” says Matalon. “The CEO will have both effectively managed the legacy issue and fostered a more productive and inclusive workplace.”
Considering the pressures of the CEO role, it’s no surprise the tenure is shorter than ever. But this shouldn’t be misread as a failure or a sign of burnout necessarily, say some experts. In fact, women who step into these vacated roles have the chance to make a short-term impact that can benefit their long-term career when approached strategically.
“Companies are no longer stoic, unchanging structures that brand a career,” saysid Tulika Mehrotra, Chief Digital Officer of Peterson Technology Partners. “Instead, businesses flex more quickly to survive and as a result of their constant iterating, executives have the opportunity to successfully lead a phase or initiative and earn recognition that stands in for tenure.”
She does recommend that any woman taking a role vacated by a woman executive take the time to understand if systemic biases may have played a role in predecessor’s departure, and whether company leaders are likely to impede or support her own progress. “The board and culture are not the only factor in the role, but they can be significant markers of her potential success,” she advises.
Though women continue to face their own set of challenges on top of typical CEO pressures, the changing corporate environment also may offer opportunities to make lasting cultural changes. By embracing the moment — and preparing for the inevitable added scrutiny — women can establish new leadership models and ways of working that benefit everyone.
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