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CEO Tenures Are Getting Shorter: How to Protect Yourself Before Taking the Top Job

While managing the pressures of the C-Suite has never been easy, CEOs have come under particular strain and scrutiny lately. From greater social responsibility and shifting worker expectations to rapid tech advances and the challenges of inflationary pressures, the job’s demands have never been greater. That’s why, over half of CEOs expect leadership to be more challenging in 2024, according to a new report from Chief and Wakefield Research.

These pressures have taken a toll on CEO tenure. In fact, a recent study by Equilar found that the median tenure among the S&P 500 companies has decreased 20% from six years in 2013 to 4.8 years in 2022.

This shifting landscape presents unique challenges for executives, especially women, as they navigate the complexities of the top job. Women CEOs often face the “glass cliff” phenomenon, where they are appointed to leadership roles during times of crisis or turmoil — and then often blamed when the turnaround seems insurmountable. Perhaps no surprise then that women CEOs also tend to depart the role earlier than their male counterparts, with data typically showing a 25% shorter tenure.

With the right mindset and preparation, however, savvy executives can navigate the complexities of today’s CEO role before they set foot in the top job — and they can set the stage to ensure a lasting legacy long after they leave it.

Know What You’re Walking Into

While you won’t be able to uncover every potential pitfall about a company before signing the offer letter, doing thorough due diligence is especially important when taking a potentially risky CEO role.

“Ask the hard questions,” suggests Amy Spurling, CEO of HR software company Compt. “What’s the real state of the company? Are you walking into a financial minefield? What’s the deal with the board—are they supportive, or are they looking for a scapegoat?”

Eric McNulty, Associate Director at Harvard National Preparedness Leadership Initiative, echoes the advice to dive deep at the board level. “Ask the board if there are changes they expect to see made in the first six months,” he says. “You may not agree to make them all, but you want to be clear on their expectations.”

He also suggests going through the financials in detail and looking for red flags. If they won’t share all you ask for, be extra wary, as it could be an ominous sign of things to come.

“It’s about knowing what you’re getting into, so you don’t end up as the fall guy (woman) for problems that were baked in long before you showed up,” says Spurling.

Negotiating a Solid Severance

Even if the firm checks all the boxes, negotiating a solid severance package upfront is a must. Here, women may benefit from higher packages than men, due to the “dismissal vulnerability” that women face when they take over poorly performing firms.

Research found that women who accept a CEO role negotiate heftier packages than men in struggling companies. If the previous CEO was dismissed prematurely or under a short timeline, it can be a bargaining chip in these negotiations to argue for a more substantial package.

Protecting Yourself in the Role

Once you’ve accepted the position, you can make strategic moves to bolster your allies — both externally and internally. Focus on relationships first, before making big strategic moves.

“Before you reorganize the place or launch a flashy new initiative, you want to know what’s working, who your allies are going to be, and who your adversaries or resistors are likely to be,” McNulty explains. He worked with one turnaround CEO who quickly developed an understanding of what caused the need for a turnaround, and identified the hidden talent that was ready to support change. “It enabled her to both show urgency and build a foundation for the long, hard work of resetting the company,” he recalls.

Also, make it clear from day one that you are open to hearing about problems as well as opportunities. McNulty points to GM CEO Mary Barra as a prime example. “If she hadn’t dealt right away with the safety issues, they would have festered and threatened her tenure,” he says. “Instead, she used it as an opportunity to set a tone and build credibility with the truth-tellers and quality advocates she would need as allies down the road.”

Navigating the Aftermath of a Departure

Sometimes, despite best efforts, things don’t work out. If you find yourself let go, don’t take it as a personal failure. “The glass cliff is a thing because of systemic issues, not because you didn’t cut it,” says Spurling. “Spin your experience into a positive narrative for what’s next. Share your story with other women. Every time one of us takes on a leadership role, it’s a step forward, cliff or no cliff.”

Before rushing into the next job search, take time for reflection and learning. “Taking time to identify your strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations for the future is essential,” says Malika Begin, Founder and CEO of Begin Development. “Embracing this period of change with a growth mindset can lead to even greater opportunities down the road.”

By asking the right questions, building strong relationships, and staying true to their values, executives can navigate the challenges of being a CEO and leave a lasting impact on their organizations — no matter how long or short their time at the top may be.

Source:Chief

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