For American CEOs Especially, the Path to the Corner Office is a Long One

Heads of large companies are most likely internal appointments who toiled for decades at the same employer to reach the top, survey finds.

Any CEOs concerned that they are about to lose that brilliant but impatient successor-in-waiting have some new data to perhaps calm them down.

New research indicates that the path to the corner office is a long one, particularly in the U.S., where experience and loyalty appear to outrank naked ambition.

Some 85% of top U.S. company CEOs are sourced internally, according to recruitment firm Heidrick & Struggles. Their research drew the conclusion after cataloging the CEOs of the 100 largest companies in each of the U.S., UK, Germany and France.

In Germany, 68% of CEOs had to rise through the ranks, though the rate of internal appointments in Britain and France was much lower, at 61% and 48%, respectively.


American CEOs also had to work harder. On average, they spent 20 years toiling at the same employer to earn that ultimate promotion, compared to no more than 14 years in the other three countries. Consequently, the age of the average CEO appointment in the U.S. was 52, compared to 50 in Germany, 49 in Britain and 48 in France.

A recent Spencer Stuart study found the average age of CEOs in the S&P 500 index rose by 4% over 10 years to 57.2 in 2016. However, according to Chief Executive’s CEO1000 Tracker, the average age of the 1,000 largest companies (public and private) is actually higher, at 58. Korn Ferry research also notes that the average of CEOs overall is 58.

As recently reported by Chief Executive, American CEOs appear to be getting older, too, perhaps thanks to general improvements in living standards that are stretching our life expectancies.

The Heidrick & Struggles analysis also found that the U.S. leads the way for female CEO appointments, though they still just account for 8% of the total. Chief Executive’s CEO1000 Tracker puts that number at 6%.

Heidrick & Struggles also reports that 69% of U.S. CEOs hold advanced degrees, with the proportion is much higher in France, at 86%. Finance is the most common functional background, rearing 31% of U.S. CEOs. Engineering formed the next-most common background, followed by operations and sales and marketing, tied for third.

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