Why More CEOs Candidates Are Saying ‘No Thanks’ to the Top Position on the Corporate Ladder

That’s the conclusion of a new survey by Korn Ferry of the ambitions of executives who haven’t reached the CEO level yet. A full 31% of those surveyed weren’t enthusiastic about becoming a CEO. While 68% answered “yes, definitely” they would like to rise to the ultimate level in business, 20% indicated they were “open, but ambivalent” to the possibility” while 11% said “no, thank you.”

“It says we’re in an era in which just getting to the top spot without regard to tradeoffs isn’t the M.O. anymore.”

This rebuke of ambition is historic, said one of Korn Ferry’s own top executives. “It says we’re in an era in which just getting to the top spot without regard to tradeoffs isn’t the M.O. anymore, said Jane Stevenson, vice chairman and leader of the global CEO succession practice for the Los Angeles-based executive-recruitment giant. She told CEO Briefing that this is a decided change “from 10 years ago and, for sure, from 20 years ago.”

But what has caused this change in attitudes? Stevenson said that “in the U.S. in particular, [executives] live in an era of plenty that causes people to think about the tradeoffs differently. There is a sense of, ‘How much is enough?’ and, ‘If I get that job, what is it that I’m giving up?’ They see that what they would be giving up, and the level of control and level of security that you’d have, is very different in top spots today. Thirty years ago, it was almost a tenured role.”

Would-be CEOs needn’t look far to see how the ground has shifted. A number of factors have made the jobs of business chiefs much more difficult than in memory—the Great Recession and slow economy since then, huge new regulatory pressures, technological disruptions, geopolitical unpredictability and activist shareholders among them—while their performance must be more transparent than ever thanks to the unceasing glare provided by digital technologies and increased pressure from constituents and the board.

“This result isn’t a reflection of CEOs complaining about their own jobs,” Stevenson said. “But it’s pretty obvious that they live in a meat grinder.”

Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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