CEO departures through November rose 12% year-on-year to 1,480, according to executive outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. That was only four exits shy of the record set in 2008, during the turmoil of the global financial crisis. Since November, five more prominent chiefs have left their jobs: Alphabet’s Larry Page, United’s Oscar Munoz, Expedia’s Mark Okerstrom, Harold Hamm of oil producer Continental Resources, and Steph Korey of Away, a trendy luggage company.
But unlike 2008, this isn’t a period of economic turbulence. Periods of booming stocks allow successful CEOs to hand over the reins without spooking investors. Alphabet’s Page—along with cofounder and president Sergey Brin, who also stepped down—exemplifies this kind of smooth transition. All told, 36% of departing CEOs transitioned to another senior role at the company. Hamm, for example, stayed on as chairman.
But that doesn’t fully explain the surge in CEO turnover. “It’s surprising,” says Andrew Challenger of Challenger Gray. “It doesn’t jibe with what we’ve seen historically, but in some ways, it’s a tight labor market for CEOs too.” One clue is that more replacements are coming from outside candidates, not in-house. “This means companies are saying, ‘We don’t have the institutional knowledge to do this. We need to go out into the market and find new talent.’ ”