Optimizing CEO Tenure: The CEO Perspective

When to Stay and When to Leave

For CEOs and aspiring CEOs, developing a deep level of self-awareness is a critical asset. This single factor can provide a strong gauge to periodically assess your performance and commitment to a role and company.

AAG_CEO_Performance Commitment matrix

Understanding Your Performance

Staying ahead of the game in understanding how the board and your leadership team evaluate your contribution to a company’s performance and development will give you an early sense of whether you are solidly meeting expectations (and perhaps even soaring to a substantial, well-deserved bonus at the end of the year), or teetering towards a premature exit.

No CEO aspires to underperform but sometimes it happens. Factors outside of your control, such as a shift in the competitive landscape or the capital markets, may overwhelmingly change the prospects for succeeding in the role. Regardless of whether you are performing above or below expectations, being self-aware will keep you better positioned to control the decision of when to leave the organization.

Understanding Your Commitment

Beyond mastering the “hard” competencies of traditional management and leadership, CEOs who truly understand the “soft” elements of their leadership DNA can more likely weather the experience of being at the helm of an organization on their own terms.

Being clear about your values and personal aspirations can guide you through a considered and intentionally managed transition to the next phase in your career rather than plummeting into a frustrated, uninspired burnout situation or facing a disappointing conflict in expectations.

A recent article in Fortune magazine described four types of CEOs: Monarchs, generals, ambassadors and governors. The four types of CEOs provide a template to guide self-assessment.

CEO Tenure Categories

Each profile has a different ambition which influences the drive and commitment of the CEO over a period of time. Knowing what “makes you tick” and defining how you envision your contribution to the organization creates an internal roadmap, which you can share with your board and your colleagues. It’s also important to share your roadmap with the significant people in your personal life who will be going along with you for the ride and be valuable sources of guidance and critique.

How to Deepen Your Self-Awareness

In the perpetual quest to know thyself, CEOs may consider the following:

  1. Maintain open communication with your board and management team – The people you work most closely with and are most accountable to will generally have the most comprehensive views about your performance and perceived level of commitment. Perception is reality. Rejecting criticism (constructive or otherwise) and resisting input will likely lead you to failure and denial. Team insight is critical to your growth and success. Engage frequently to cultivate thick skin and an open mind.
  2. Solicit feedback from a broad pool of colleagues – Many individuals across the organization form strong opinions about the CEO, often based on limited direct personal interaction and poor visibility into the larger context in which the CEO is acting. In aggregate, this feedback is also valuable. Take it with a mix of humility and good judgement.
  3. Establish a culture of appreciative inquiry – Aligning your entire organization around the process of evaluating positive aspects of the current situation, envisioning a compelling way forward, engaging in discussion about priorities, and collaboratively executing on a plan creates a healthy force for leading from your strengths and leading by example. You can adapt this process to notice how and where you have most impact within the organization and expand how you respond to emerging issues.
  4. Listen to people who know you well – Beyond staying attuned to voices within the organization, paying attention to observations from people you trust and respect can keep you grounded and provide a source for inquiry. Are you getting more irritable and hot-tempered? Are you withdrawn and distracted? Are you becoming increasingly dictatorial and close-minded?
  5. Practice disciplined reflection and mindfulness – Having ultimate responsibility for the overall performance of a mature organization is inherently time-consuming and immersive. Actively protecting time in your schedule to reflect, prioritize, and re-energize can create space for useful insights to emerge. For some people, physical activity provides an outlet for this decompression; for others, a spiritual practice like meditation or yoga; commonly too, a morning ritual over a cup of coffee or evening reflection with a glass of red wine.

For more analysis of CEO tenure view Optimizing CEO Tenure: The Board Perspective and an analysis of CEO tenure trends across Africa.

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