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 / Summer 2008 / Issue 51(originally published by Booz & Company)


CEO Succession 2007: The Performance Paradox

The news this year is that even those chief executives who deliver subpar returns are showing unexpected staying power.

Illustration by Ross MacDonald

One of today’s most pervasive criticisms of corporate behavior is that boards of directors are driven above all else by the stock market’s demands for short-term gains. As a result, they don’t give chief executive officers enough time to develop and implement long-term strategies that will drive sustained performance. New CEOs, the story goes, have two years to boost earnings per share — three if they’re lucky — before their impatient boards give them the ax.

The problem with this story is that it’s not true. The facts, revealed this year by Booz & Company’s annual study of CEO turnover at the world’s largest companies, suggest the opposite. To be sure, corporate boards have indeed become somewhat more likely to dismiss their chief executives since 2000 than in the previous decade. But there is no evidence that those boards are moving hastily to fire CEOs because of poor short-term results, according to our analysis of 10 years’ worth of data. In fact, we find that even the worst-performing CEOs face a low probability of being forced from office in the short term. Rather, the uptick in dismissals is due largely to an increase in board struggles.

Our current study of CEO turnover includes data for the world’s largest 2,500 public companies for 10 full years — 1995, 1998, and 2000 through 2007. This year’s data shows a continuation of many of the trends that emerged earlier in this decade. For example, the overall rate of CEO turnover — which includes planned successions, dismissals, and merger-related departures — was 13.8 percent in 2007, compared with 14.3 percent the year before. This slight decrease carries on a downward trend in turnover from the high in 2005 of 15.4 percent. Separately, we found that boards continue to dismiss CEOs at a higher rate in the 2000s than in the 1990s: In 2007, the global rate of CEO dismissals due to poor performance or to boardroom disagreements was 4.2 percent. This is well above the rates we observed in the 1990s, but near the average for this decade.

Further investigation this year, however, shows that boards have not been moving to dismiss those CEOs who deliver poor stock-price performance. Using de­tailed data on total shareholder returns and CEO tenure from all 10 years, we performed a comprehensive analysis of our database to ascertain for the first time whether there is any statistical relationship between substandard stock-price performance and the likelihood of a CEO’s dismissal. For all CEOs, the likelihood of being dismissed for poor performance in a given year is only 2.1 percent. Given this data, it is not surprising that the correlation between stock performance and dismissal is generally not significant. Indeed, the very worst-performing chief executives — those in the bottom decile, whose companies’ two-year stock price had fallen by 25 percent in absolute terms and whose companies had under­performed their regional industry peers by 45 percent — had only a 5.7 percent probability of termination.

The data on CEO tenure also supports our conclusion about the probability of dismissal for poor performance. If boards were increasingly replacing CEOs after two or three years of poor performance, we would see the median tenure declining. Our earlier studies found some evidence that seemed to support the hypothesis of rapid CEO replacement. However, this year, additional analysis across the full data set shows that there has been no trend toward quicker dismissal of CEOs over time. The median tenure for a CEO who left office in 2007 was 6.0 years, the same as in 1995 and the same as the average over the 10 years of our study.

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  1. Joseph L. Bower, The CEO Within: Why Inside-Outsiders Are the Key to Succession Planning (Harvard Business School Press, 2007): The Harvard Business School professor on how companies can groom “inside outsiders” to lead.
  2. Ram Charan, “Boardroom Supports,” s+b, Winter 2003: Describes how directors play a crucial role in selecting, training, and nurturing a new CEO.
  3. Rakesh Khurana and Katharina Pick, “The Social Nature of Boards,” Brooklyn Law Review, vol. 70, no. 4, Summer 2005: Unearths the relationship between board makeup and succession decisions.
  4. Chuck Lucier, Paul Kocourek, and Rolf Habbel, “CEO Succession 2005: The Crest of the Wave,” s+b, Summer 2006: The 2005 study heralded the end of the era of the imperial CEO.
  5. Chuck Lucier, Steven Wheeler, and Rolf Habbel, “CEO Succession 2006: The Era of the Inclusive Leader,” s+b, Summer 2007: As turnover leveled off, last year’s study revealed chief executives and their boards were adopting new survival strategies.
  6. Ira M. Millstein and Paul W. MacAvoy, The Recurrent Crisis in Corporate Governance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004): Makes the case for an active board of directors led by an independent chair to take responsibility for corporate management.
  7. Michael Schrage, “Ira M. Millstein: The Thought Leader Interview,” s+b, Spring 2005: A warning from a corporate governance doyen to reform board structures or accept more value destruction.
  8. For more business thought leadership, sign up for s+b’s RSS feeds.
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