Recruitment and retention

Learning from other sectors to stave off a CEO exodus

Chief executive departure trends in other sectors could soon be mirrored in our own, says Alice Gregson. She offers five insights that could help to retain the people at the top

Chief executive departure trends in other sectors could soon be mirrored in our own, says Alice Gregson. She offers five insights that could help to retain the people at the top

6 Nov 2022, 5:00

A trust CEO does game-changing things. They advocate for their schools, children and communities, generating support and investment. They protect heads and senior leaders from political and policy upheaval, setting direction and mitigating change fatigue. They invest in the right people and resources to maximise support and expertise across schools. They generate a culture of collaboration, ensuring collective, inclusive improvement. 

Yet constant crisis leadership, political upheaval and economic pressures are taking a toll. The sector will lose people who bring vast leadership experience and expertise if it doesn’t carefully consider retention strategies. And it’s not alone.

Korn Ferry found 174 US non-profit and government sector chief executives left their jobs in the first six months of 2022, a 39 per cent jump from the same period in 2021. Crisis leadership and politics were the most cited reasons. This year, Deloitte found 70 per cent of C-level executives across four countries, including the UK, are considering jobs that better support their wellbeing. Fifty-seven per cent were ready to quit.

A key factor is a growing divide between the reality of the work and the motivation for taking the role. Vlerick Business School surveyed almost 1,000 European chief executives and found their motivations were mainly non-financial, such as achieving progress and the pride of working for the organisation. Our own 2021 #BeingTheCEO report echoed this, with 80 per cent taking the job to make a greater difference to more pupils and communities, and almost one-third attracted by the opportunity to be more strategic.

But the space to focus on long-term strategy and progress appears to be diminishing. CEOs want to position their organisations to attract and retain the best staff and to best serve young people in a changing world. Constant distraction from this threatens retention.

Ultimately, it’s the board’s responsibility to develop a retention strategy for its chief executive, and how it goes about that is crucial. Here are five insights from our work with experienced chairs and CEOs across sectors to maximise impact in a challenging context. 

Ensure the right fit from the start

A mismatch between the incoming chief executive’s and the recruiting board’s expectations and understanding of the role can influence an early exit. Robust attraction and recruitment processes support retention, particularly when everyone is clear on the role’s purpose and objectives. We recommend using the ‘Being The CEO’ template job description (endorsed by the National Governance Association) as a starting point.

 Nurture the relationship between CEO and board

Trust, respect and communication are key to ensuring the chief executive has a clear remit and what they need to do the job well. There are times when CEOs need oversight, but also times when they need exemplary support from an experienced board. It is vital to get this balance right.

Create space for strategic focus

Chief executives are mostly recruited with a mandate for organisational development and improvement, but too often find they are deployed as “firefighters”, held to account for short-term outcomes rather than strategic leadership. CEOs need support to focus on and invest in longer-term strategy and organisational development, delegating significant aspects of operational leadership to experts around them.

Ensure access to development opportunities

While most CEOs have the skills and attributes to do the role well, it is vital that they keep learning and developing. Access to organisations such as Forum Strategy, which offer peer networks, CPD and coaching, is essential for their ongoing confidence and ability to navigate turbulent times.

Prioritise wellbeing

Boards need to invest if 70 per cent of executives are considering leaving for a role that better supports their wellbeing. Modelling a commitment to wellbeing from the top is key to ensuring it pervades the whole organisation. Boards should lead by example.

We have all experienced first-hand the significant impact of leadership instability and churn. It’s imperative we ensure our schools and trusts don’t face this in already uncertain times. These five insights will help us to weather the storm.

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