Tenures Keep Falling in the C-Suite—Here’s What You Can Do to Save Your Position

Executive looks straight ahead at the camera with a city skyline in the background.

Executive search and leadership advisory firm Spencer Stuart shows average tenure dropped in 2019 for the second year in a row. Voluntary turnover is common, but force-outs also seem to occur more frequently today than in previous decades. Tenures vary between C-suite positions—in order from longest to shortest, here’s a breakdown of the average tenure roles:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
  • Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)
  • Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
  • Chief Information Officer (CIO)
  • Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)

The difference is most remarkable between CEOs at financial agencies, who served an average of 9.7 years in their position, compared to CMOs in life sciences, who typically served 3.1 years (The Wall Street Journal). Generally speaking, CMOs seem to have the briefest tenures—across industries, the average CMO only stays in their position for about 41 months (3.4 years), according to Spencer Stuart consulting.

Christine Moorman, professor of business administration at Duke University, explains marketing can be even more volatile than other verticals because conditions regarding consumer behavior, competing strategies, and overall economic trends change continuously. CMOs today are also likely to face steep budget cuts and even greater pressure because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

7 Tips for Defending Your Executive Title

If you’re a C-suite executive, you can take steps to protect your status within an organization. Ultimately, performance varies by the individual and their environment, and there is no one-size-fits-all rule for executive recruitment. Sometimes external forces create hardship that are practically unavoidable, no matter who’s positioned at the company helm. In these cases, the difference between a temporary setback and the beginning of long-term decline is a matter of conjecture, and the board directors don’t always respond methodically.

To offset these biases, executives must take proactive steps to manage economic disruptions and maintain their command.

1. Hone your leadership skills.

In the C-suite, leadership skills are arguably more important than technical expertise. Invest time and energy into improving your soft skills and business acumen to develop credibility and executive presence.

Executive in a skirt and blazer walks down a stairwell, looking in the distance2. Work in a sector that’s resilient.

Industry trends also affect tenure length. According to data from Korn Ferry, the following industries have the longest on-average tenures:

  • Financial services
  • Professional services
  • Life sciences

The same study, which was conducted using data from 2017, shows the industrial, energy, and consumer sectors have the shortest tenures on average. By breaking into a new industry, executives could find greater stability, particularly as the pandemic has affected many of these markets.

Can you transition your career during a crisis? 

3. Connect your work to tangible company value.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Christine Moorman, professor of business administration at Duke University, says executives—and CMOs in particular—need to prove the effectiveness of their work using metrics. Visibility is just as important as data gathering, and executives must help board members understand the broader context of their work within the industry overall. It’s also critical to prepare for setbacks, even during periods of growth, as most organizations are subject to occasional periods of deceleration or stagnancy.

4. Never grow complacent.

It’s common for executives to hit a wall several years into their tenure. They might have started the position with a clear vision for the company, for example—but after all their initial ideas have been implemented, some struggle to identify the next steps.

To avoid this problem, seek out new perspectives. You might consider interviewing employees at various levels, or partner with an outside firm to gain insight. There are always opportunities to explore new literature and research your competitors to expand your worldview. Taking these initiatives will help you adopt an entrepreneurial spirit to drive operations further and bring fresh ideas to the table.

5. Push through temporary setbacks.

Conventional wisdom among board directors is that most executives plateau after 9–10 years. But the Harvard Business Review’s annual list of 100 top-performing CEOs shows this assumption is often wrong. For example, Jensen Huang, Founder and CEO of NVIDIA, has held his position for almost 27 years and is HBR’s highest-rated CEO in 2019.

Other professionals named in the list include:

  • Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO (19 years)
  • Shantanu Narayen, Adobe CEO (13 years)
  • Nancy McKinstry, Wolters Kluwer CEO (17 years)
  • Richard Templeton, Texas Instruments CEO (16 years)

In fact, the average tenure of the best-performing CEOs is approximately 15 years—more than twice the overall ­­average tenure for CEOs at S&P 50­­0 companies.

This data proves conventional wisdom isn’t always correct, and many executives continue to have significant influence over the success of their organization. Try not to let yourself feel discouraged.

Board of directors meeting with multiple people talking ad smiling6. Be honest with the board of directors.

Never underestimate the power of goodwill. If you treat your colleagues and board members with respect and behave ethically, they’ll be more likely to respond positively. Transparency is key to winning the board’s trust and nurturing healthy, two-way communication.

7. Pay heed to social justice advocates.

Movements like #MeToo, #EqualPayForEqualPlay, and #BlackLivesMatter, combined with a robust public emphasis on cultural representation, environmental sustainability, and social justice, have contributed to greater accountability in the C-suite. According to a report from outplacement company Challenger, Gray & Christmas, turnover jumped by 13% in 2019 compared to 2002.

Andrew Challenger, Vice President of the organization, attributes much of this development to evolving social standards for professional and personal conduct. “What may have gone unrecognized or was downplayed in the past was not overlooked by boards, shareholders, or the general public in 2019,” Challenger says, in an interview with the U.S. News and World Report.

An executive role comes with public scrutiny, and, as a result, today’s leaders need to stay informed about issues related to politics, equality, and identity.

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