Career Goals for Many Executives Appear to Be Shifting

Study: When it comes to being CEO, a third say ‘no’

By Bill Leonard Jan 29, 2015
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When researchers for the Korn Ferry Institute recently asked a group of top-level executives “Do you w​ant to be CEO?,” they were surprised by the response. Among the nearly 550 executives polled, approximately one-third (31 percent) either didn’t want the job or were ambivalent about becoming their organization’s top executive.

“The responses were definitely an eye-opener for us,” said Jane Stevenson, vice president, board and CEO services at Korn Ferry, one of the world’s largest executive search firms. “It definitely indicates a trend away from executives sticking to what we think of as traditional career paths.”

According to Stevenson, several factors appear to be driving this trend. First and possibly most obvious, CEOs are under intense pressure and scrutiny.

“There’s the perception by a lot of executives that the CEO job is a bit of a meat grinder,” she said. “CEOs today are under a lot of pressure to perform, and results have to be nearly immediate. Many CEOs are essentially campaigning to keep their job quarterly—whenever earnings reports come due.”

In addition, CEOs, especially those at high-profile organizations, must deal with loss of privacy.

“CEOs are on display more now than ever before,” she said. “They are much more public figures, and many people just don’t feel comfortable with the added public exposure that comes with the job.”

A generational and demographic shift is another key factor that is altering career aspirations, Stevenson added.

“For years, there has been growing emphasis on the importance of having a work/life balance,” she said. “Younger workers, particularly Millennials, are much more interested in trade-offs and finding a good balance between their work and home lives.”

The result is that organizations will have to adapt quickly to the changing ambitions of their top- and midlevel managers.

“Definitely businesses are taking notice and many are re-examining how they approach succession planning,” Stevenson said. “It used to be that becoming CEO was considered the ultimate career goal, and it still is for some. However, businesses could now be missing out on some of the best leadership potential in their organization, because some leaders may have grown ambivalent about becoming CEO.”

Keeping this in mind, many employers are shifting business leadership development and succession planning away from individuals setting career paths based on their job aspirations. The trend, according to Stevenson, is to create development plans that rely more on key motivators and assessments of who the person is, instead of molding specific candidates for the job.

“It’s a different focus for leaders to understand who they are and what they want by looking at what truly motivates them,” she said.

She added that a growing number of business leaders are now talking about ways to adapt the new model to their corporate succession plans and allow executives to choose which direction their career develops based on what motivates them the most.

The idea, according to Stevenson, is to create a more holistic approach to leadership development that focuses on “the whole person.”

“We call it the four dimensions of leadership and talent,” she said. “And for organizations to get the most from their leadership, they need to use what we call a ‘four dimensional lens’ to assess and evaluate talent and leadership potential.”

These four dimensions are competencies, experiences, traits and drivers (or motivators). By using this approach to assess and develop talent, businesses can better engage their leaders—especially those who had not considered that moving on to become CEO was a viable option.

Mike Broderick, president and CEO at Turning Technologies in Youngstown, Ohio, agreed with Stevenson that a more holistic approach to leadership development works. Leadership development opportunities at Broderick’s technology company of approximately 300 employees are fairly open-ended, he said, and managers can pick and choose to learn about aspects of the business and managing employees that truly interest them.

“It works well, because they learn more about themselves and about the company at the same time,” Broderick said. “And, typically, once they begin the learning process they keep building on it. I don’t think anyone in particular right now is gunning for my job, but I now know there are several people here who have the potential and the knowledge to take over when I retire and do a fantastic job.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.

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