Smart Organizations Avoid the Boomerang CEO

Mickey Moore | October 26, 2023 | Blog | 2 minute read

Where do CEOs go when they retire?  Many of them end up going back to their old job.  There are probably as many reasons for this boomerang trend as there are leaders. One important factor, as Cindy Solomon points out in this NPR story, is that the next in line wasn’t ready to take the reins.

Turns out that organizations often stop investing in leadership development at the C-suite level.  This short-sighted approach assumes that leadership is something you learn once, and that by the time you reach the C-suite, you have already learned to lead. You are “complete”.

It’s true that by the time they reach the C-suite, leaders have acquired a wealth of experience, skills, and knowledge.  They have made tough decisions, led difficult conversations, and navigated their way through multiple strategic challenges.  When C-suite leaders fail, it’s not because they aren’t smart or that they aren’t skilled.   In fact, they are usually quite smart and quite skilled.  That doesn’t mean they are prepared to be CEO.

CEOs manage an enterprise in its totality. CEOs are responsible to boards, customers, employees, direct reports, the community, the media, and so on. CEOs must deliver consistent, predictable financial results, set enterprise direction, build a high performing executive team, and assure that employees are inspired and engaged. The transition from leading a function to leading an enterprise is one that few C-level leaders are prepared for. It is no wonder that many never make it past the 18-month mark in the role.

Being a CEO is unlike any other experience, and leadership development at this level should be different, too.   The CEO needs a safe space to wrestle with decisions and with the range of expectations resting on their shoulders.  They need this space consistently.

At The Bailey Group, we say that “Executive Coaching is Leadership Development in the Flow of Work.” An executive coach provides confidential support, challenges the CEO’s assumptions, and advises on

board relationships, change management, confronting under-performing direct reports, creating a high performing Executive Leadership Team, employee engagement, providing experienced perspective on difficult decisions, and day to day challenges that arise in the VUCA environment all CEOs face.

When organizations neglect to provide support for a new CEO, they run the risk of making a very public and costly misstep that can set an organization back for years, or damage it irreparably.  On the flip side, an investment in your new CEO means the organization will be in capable hands.  When the organization is in capable hands the former CEO can (finally) hit the beach.