No one needs to cry for CEOs. They’re usually very well paid. They get a lot of perks. And they’re given a lot of power.
But in exchange for all those benefits, their jobs come with huge and sometimes unrealistic expectations.
On CEOs’ perpetual to-do list: Hit quarterly numbers. Innovate for long-term growth. Think deeply. Decide quickly. Hire well. Fire fast. Be tough. Be vulnerable. Be authentic. Be available 24/7. Stay healthy and clearheaded.
And do this while serving as the public face of the company, fostering a positive corporate culture, and managing for the often unpredictable political, regulatory, economic and competitive landscape.
Oh, and don’t neglect your personal life.
“Is it an impossible ask of one person? Yes, it is. Boards excuse themselves by saying it’s all about the CEO and then pricing the impossibility into the package by paying CEOs massive amounts,” said Richard Hytner, who served as advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi’s CEO for Europe, Middle East and Africa in the mid-2000s.
Hytner realized a few years into his tenure that he never wanted to be a CEO again. “It’s a relentless slog to please the shareholder. There was an expectation that there would be growth at any cost. You had to adjust your strategy because you had made the commitment. And the people decisions are hard,” he said.
Hytner gave up his post to become Saatchi & Saatchi’s worldwide deputy chairman and later wrote the book, “Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows,” in which he argues that boards should pay much more attention to the importance of those in deputy leadership roles who counsel and support the CEO.
CEOs step down for any number of reasons. Some do so voluntarily, some are pushed out. Average CEO tenures have dropped at large companies and there has been a record high number of CEO departures so far this year.
That turnover is driven at least in part by the enormous pressures of the job.
While CEOs are charged with running companies, their power is often constrained in several ways.
“When you climb the hierarchy, you think the level of freedom increases. But the feeling is that the level of freedom decreases. You have so many stakeholders. You have company politics and geopolitical concerns. There is the media. All that can drive your agenda. Yet you feel you should have everything in control,” said executive coach and psychotherapist Karsten Drath, managing partner at the consulting firm Leadership Choices.
Coupled with these demands is such a tight schedule that CEOs often feel like puppets, with no time to reflect or ground themselves, Drath said.
There is also “anxiety about murder by social media” among CEOs, said psychotherapist and executive coach Steve Berglas. “What I hear so many times is ‘I can meet most numbers, but if there’s a wave of negativity on Twitter, it can kick my butt all over the landscape.’”
The personal toll
A happy, healthy CEO is in every company stakeholder’s interest.
But it’s hard to take care of yourself and spend time with your family when you’re negotiating and closing deals, managing a company crisis, taking two-day business trips overseas, or preparing for board meetings.
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One reason Jim Hagemann Snabe decided to leave his role as co-CEO of German software firm SAP in 2013 was a lack of time at home. “I’m constantly on the move in this job. My family lives in Copenhagen and I haven’t seen much of them in the past three years,” Hagemann Snabe told CNBC at the time.
Many CEOs will rationalize their career decisions in the moment, Drath noted. “And only when they’ve left their position do they talk about what they missed.”
That’s why, he said, “you need to be able to enjoy power and the capability of shaping something, because you’re paying a high price.”