For anyone with ambition the classic assumption is that the career path will proceed in a nicely linear fashion from bottom left to top right. Either you join a major company and start the climb up the greasy pole or you make well-timed moves across a series of organisations. And for a number of years this is the pattern that occurs. The promotions come along, you get your first team to run, your phone starts to ring with callers that announce themselves “Hi, I’m Alan (or Amanda or whoever) from xyz, we’re executive search consultants; can you speak?” You move for the next big job at board level and so it continues. For a while.
Executive tenures are getting shorter. Average CEO tenure in the US is now reported to be around 6 years but with one survey across the whole of North America claiming a drop to just 30 months. Here in the UK, a recent survey showed the average executive time in role down to only 2.3 years, a decline of 15% over three years. Life in the executive suite can clearly be short and may even be downright nasty and brutish given the stresses that build rapidly in such short periods. Why does this carnage occur? What are the implications for business? What are the effects on a team when the leader changes so frequently?
Non performance is clearly the quick answer and the one usually offered (along with “It didn’t work out”). However, if the average period of tenure is down to as little as two or three years, then something is sadly & badly wrong in the executive development and recruitment process. It has been claimed that it takes an average of three years to reach peak performance in a role, so if they are failing before this time we get a flavour of just how sub-optimal the processes at play are. So, what is happening here? Are we really turning out a generation of sub-standard executives? Or are the short-term pressures so great that most firms don’t have either the patience or the understanding to give our new hires the time to perform? It’s hard to believe that in the late 20th and early 21st century we were failing to turn out professional managers but is it really possible?
There can be few executives nowadays who have never been ‘let go’, never felt the shock of being fired, never had to live through the process of selling themselves to a new employer, and often into a new industry. My time in business tells that the average executive is going to face a more bell curved career path rather than the nice 45 degree slope we all imagine. Having put in some years of training, development and hard work with a major firm, the odds are against the ‘out-placed’ executive finding a role in another of the main competitor companies. So, a succession of smaller companies and smaller roles follow.
Just the views of one man based on some of life’s personal ups and downs? Not quite. Apart from my recruitment responsibilities in the companies I have worked in and owned, I have had some interesting and more insightful experiences. The two businesses I started from the ground up with a colleague were firstly focused on assisting outplaced executives into their own businesses and the second recruited the very best men and women for our own business coaching and mentoring startup (which became a very successful venture). We saw thousands of CVs and interviewed many. Leaving aside, for the moment, whatever brought these people into having their careers interrupted, the overriding impression was of the terrible waste of talent.
The loss of the economic output of these (and countless other outplaced executives) to the business community and the wider economy was, simply, tragic. Had they really failed? Or were other less obvious forces at play? Luckily, we were able to work with some of the very best in our own business, in turn helping business owners and their teams across the country. Getting to know these men and women well, and their fantastic qualifications, skills and experience only served to make me shake my head more at the waste.
What are your experiences of this dispiriting process? Have you made it through to a better career? In a future post I’ll be looking at some of the reasons I have found for the ever shortening period of executive time in post.