A record number of CEOs are heading for the exits as companies face a murky future


As Seen in Fortune Magazine


U.S. companies have had their hands full this year maneuvering through high inflation, a possible looming recession, a strong labor market, and A.I.—now it appears they're dealing with record levels of CEO turnover as well.

The month of May saw 224 U.S.-based CEOs exit their roles, according to data collected by executive outplacement and coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That number is up 52% from the 147 CEOs who left their positions in April, and 49% higher than the 150 CEOs who left their jobs in May of last year.  

In fact, the latest report reveals that May clocked the most CEOs leaving in a single month since the firm began tracking the data in 2002. The previous high was in January 2019, when 219 CEOs left the corner office.

This year overall has been rough for corporate leaders, and 789 CEOs have left their posts, up 18% from the 668 who left through the first five months of 2022, according to the firm. That means that 2023 so far has notched the highest January-through-May corner-office vacancies on record.

Challenger, Gray & Christmas did not give specific reasons for the high turnover rates, but did hint at a tough business climate facing U.S. companies. "Companies are dealing with some uncertainty heading into the second half of the year surrounding recession concerns, disruptive technology, and high interest rates," said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at the company, wrote in a statement.

In a follow-up email, Challenger told Fortunethat the workplace had "fundamentally changed" over the past three years, and CEOs experience burnout like anyone else.  

"CEOs are answering to demands for remote and hybrid work, the effects of worker burnout and talent shortages, calls for increased diversity and mental health support as well as a difficult-to-predict economic picture," he said. 

Typically, companies don't provide detailed reasons for why a CEO exits. Of the leaders tracked by Challenger, Gray & Christmas this year, 266 CEOs have left this year without reason. Another 182 retired, 168 either stepped down or resigned, 40 took a new opportunity, 37 had their interim positions come to an end, 32 took new positions within their companies, and 17 left for personal reasons.

The government and nonprofit sector saw the most CEO exits in May at 58, followed by technology with 21. The government and nonprofit sector also leads the way in most CEO quits this year with 182 exits, followed by the tech sector, which has seen 91 CEOs leave, an increase of 44% compared to the same period last year. 

Major upheaval at the highest level of the org charts in U.S. businesses this year has been documented elsewhere as well. In April, leadership advisory firm Russell Reynolds Associates reported that CEO turnover last year was at a five-year high. The firm said at the time that it expected turnover rates this year to stay above 2020 and 2021 levels.

Russell Reynolds CEO Constantine Alexandrakis cited economic uncertainties and "a much faster rate of change in the business environment…causing companies to desire new approaches, new innovations, and new strategies to compete more vigorously."

June 22, 2023: This story has been updated with additional comment from Andrew Challenger


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