Corner office or not, it seemed like everyone needed a break after 2021. CEOs and other CEOs have spent the past two years juggling work-life balance like everyone else — just like employees at the lower rungs of the corporate ladder, a growing number are walking Far by far.
“The CEO’s job is burning midnight oil. You add Covid to that, and it looks like you’re doing twice the work for half the payoff,” said Miles Crawford, a former CEO of a recruitment firm about an hour south of Walmart’s home base in Bentonville, Arkansas. Stand up to the fires that pop up.” Crawford left his job in June when the company was sold.
In February of 2020, job site ZipRecruiter.com found that there were an average of 22,072 active C-suite job openings advertised across its network. That number dropped to 9,301 in May 2020 – then started climbing, reaching 40,681 in October 2021.
Julia Pollack, chief economist at ZipRecruiter, said a number of factors are driving people to leave senior jobs. “It’s a lot of factors — burnout, the pandemic, school closures, the need for a life assessment,” she said. “It’s a whole lot of trauma.”
Senior officers at some of America’s biggest and best-known companies aren’t immune: Twitter founder Jack Dorsey announced he will step down as CEO in November and leave the social media company’s board of directors later this year. “After nearly 16 years… I finally decided it was time for me to leave,” tweet Announcing his resignation.
Even corporate bosses who have worked for long periods of time at their head are heading off. Jeff Bezos resigned as Amazon CEO in July, former Disney CEO and current president Bob Iger said he would leave the company at the end of 2021, and American Airlines CEO Doug Parker announced in December that he would retire in March.
In December, 106 chief executives left their positions, according to monthly tracking by outsourced recruitment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which indicated that the CEO’s 142-month departure in October was the second-highest month on record. In total, the number of CEOs leaving in the fourth quarter of 2021 was up 16% year over year. If historical trends hold, companies will need to prepare for an expected wave of CEO departures in January, the traditionally highest month for CEO departures when Challenger began tracking numbers in 2004.
HR experts say none of this should come as a surprise. The data suggests that senior corporate officers are grappling with many of the same challenges as their employees — and then some — and that the growing pressure of the pandemic is taking a heavy toll. A November Gallup poll found that the percentage of managers who reported feeling fatigued “a lot” or “always” increased.
“We didn’t realize that CEOs are employees too,” said Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management. “We’re talking about employees who have experienced ‘Covid clarity.’ It’s happened with us too over the last couple of years. You’re under a lot of pressure and you just say, ‘Do I need this?’ There is no longer a work-life balance, especially for CEOs.”
There is no longer a work-life balance, especially for CEOs.
Senior executives recount enormous pressures over the past two years not only to steer operations through an unprecedented and turbulent global public health crisis, but also to demonstrate confidence and stability to frightened, isolated and often exhausted employees.
“There was no clue how to handle this situation, so the challenge was that we couldn’t look to the past to find any precedent to follow,” said Olin Hyde, who resigned as CEO a year ago from San Diego. A company he founded in 2013, is a sales development platform formerly called LeadCrunch (it has since been rebranded with the new name Rev).
Michael Henderson, who left his job as chief technology officer at Talent, Inc. And New York-based in December: “Obviously the pandemic has made things stressful for everyone.” “I’ve had a lot of fatigue,” he said.
Henderson said he has struggled to combat lags in productivity and friction between workers. “I’ve had remote work teams in the past, and one of the things I’ve seen is no matter how strong the psychological bonds are, after three months, that trust starts to break down,” he said. “Everyone was on edge.”
There are indications that this pressure is affecting younger, more ambitious talent in US companies: A MetLife survey published in September found that 42 percent of managers in the 26-40 age group reported experiencing burnout, the highest rate among age groups. The age cohorts surveyed.
London-based Dhruv Gulati started Factmata, a tech company that uses artificial intelligence to combat online misinformation in 2017, when he was just 25 years old. Before Covid, Gulati was already exploring the idea of an exit, and had a candidate lined up to replace him in early 2020. When that failed, it was a heavy blow – and the pandemic soon piled on the rest. “That also took a lot of wind out of my sails,” he said. “I just felt kind of stuck.”
Gulati said he struggled to retain staff in the early months of the pandemic. “Working for a startup suddenly doesn’t seem like a safe bet,” he said, and operational challenges added to his pressure. “I felt like I could only be beaten that much,” he said.
Observers say the other big factor contributing to the departure is that the CEO’s role in the public imagination has fundamentally changed. “Traditionally, CEOs have been responsible for managing shareholder and shareholder relationships,” Taylor said.
But today, CEOs are finding that they have to respond to a much larger number of stakeholders which may include employees, clients and activist groups — and are held accountable if their views are out of step with the zeitgeist.
“Now, you have employees who want to know if you align with their beliefs and your value systems in your personal life,” Taylor said. “You really lose any ability to be an individual.”
“You see a lot of CEOs weighing risks and tradeoffs,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean of the Yale School of Management and executive director of the Yale Institute for Executive Leadership. “Trying to navigate a sea of cord issues is not what they have in common.”
Conversely, many CEOs find that climbing off the corporate ladder is the incentive they need to reinvent or revitalize themselves. In April, Gulati handed the reins over to his right hand and began what was supposed to be a six-month vacation. After a stint doing short-term consulting projects and traveling throughout Europe and Latin America, he nonetheless decided to stick with his new, less stressful status quo. “I am amazed at how my experience is still appreciated by so many founders who need support… want to talk to the people who have been there, in the trenches,” he said.
“I’ve been doing a lot of board work and advisory work” — a role he said he also prefers at the moment, Hyde said. “I am not in a position to make half a million dollar decisions on a weekly basis. It is a lot easier and a lot less stressful.”
ZipRecruiter’s Pollack notes that departures often have positive effects on CEOs themselves. “I think we’re watching what I refer to as people wanting to balance their lives,” she said. “I see people who have already reassessed their lifestyle because of the pandemic. I know CEOs who have finally met their kids, and they don’t want to give it up.”
I know CEOs who finally got to know their kids, and they don’t want to give it up.
Crawford, who is only 34, said he sees himself almost halfway through his career — as well as at an inflection point. Of his stepping down as CEO, he said, “I’m still very young, and I know it…I’ve seen it’s the kind of rare moment in life to stop and look around.”
“I think before I go back to the next 15, I try to be as intentional as possible, making sure the opportunity I take is going to be good for me,” Crawford said. “It took me a few months to learn how to be present again, go to the park, go for picnics, spend time with the kids, and get them to eat ice cream without checking emails on my phone. There is just something real about it.”