Jobs and the Future of Work

Why post-pandemic leadership fatigue puts extreme pressure on the C-suite 

This image shows people around a boardroom table illustrating the pressure on those in leadership positions

Those in leadership positions are now under pressure to perform on a multitude of levels Image: Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Sharon Sands
Partner, Heidrick & Struggles
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  • There is a huge amount of pressure on business leaders to perform on a multitude of levels.
  • It is now almost impossible for leaders to deliver on all that is expected of them.
  • To overcome this, it is critical that every executive leadership team has a clear, shared and reasonable vision for their organization's direction.

Over recent years, the responsibilities of executive leaders have evolved and expanded far beyond functional and technical competencies. In quiet, off-the-record conversations, would-be leaders are expressing concern over how responsibilities have developed beyond any reasonable ability to deliver across all expectations and there is an increasing sense of nervousness around decision-making and scrutiny in the public eye.

Granted – nobody enters the C-suite thinking they will be in for an easy ride. The pressures of holding one of the most senior roles in a large organization have always been significant. It requires a comprehensive set of skills, competencies and experiences to excel.

The strain has intensified recently, however. This has created an interesting dynamic for leaders, organizations and executive search firms. With the compounding effect of pre-COVID-19 pandemic challenges, with many companies undergoing extensive digital transformations, navigating increasingly complex operating environments and dealing with regulatory uncertainty, as a result of events such as Brexit and US-China trade tensions, a precedent for unpredictability has laid a shaky foundation for those seeking the organizational top spot.

Even so, it’s hard to overstate how much the events since 2020 have ramped up the pressure on the C-suite. The climate crisis, the explosion of social media and cancel culture, social justice issues and economic disparity, the fallout of the Great Resignation, the war in Ukraine, supply chain disruption and more, are now taking their toll on the psychological wellbeing of those expected to keep level heads in the boardroom.

According to a recent survey by Deloitte and Workplace Intelligence, nearly 70% of the 2,100 C-suite candidates interviewed are considering leaving their roles for a position that better supports their health. With all told, does this leave a strong pipeline of individuals who are willing to take up the mantle?

Have you read?

The perfection paradox

Our informal discussions with senior executives back up the overall sentiments outlined above, albeit anecdotally. CEO candidates have always been expected to demonstrate their capabilities as all-rounders, but there's now a perception that this has turned into an exhaustive list of often paradoxical expectations to which any mere human can only aspire.

The post-pandemic requirement for leaders to be financially adept, growth-driving, sector-leading, culturally inclusive, DEI-delivering role models can present a daily decision tree that has a no-win outcome for those at the top. Generational divides and inter-organizational ‘culture wars’ are also becoming more evident as Baby Boomers exit the workforce and GenZ enters, with demands of employers that align to their values and a more flexible approach to when, where and how they deliver their work. The weight of scrutiny on each decision and outcome has long been shown to stifle creativity.

In short, we have businesses' top problem-solvers, galvanizers and leaders who are finding themselves increasingly feeling like they are caught in no-win situations. Without seeking sympathy for their strife, it must be accepted that nobody wins when leadership performance is judged on perfection – and many people and organizations will miss out on the potential for great success by how our CEOs are judged.

Do I want the job or not?

This 'perfection paradox' creates a situation where C-suite positions are ultimately becoming less appealing. Executives are well-used to heavy and diverse demands and are rewarded handsomely for it – but in a ‘candidate’s market,’ companies must set the tone and boundaries for expectations that will be placed on future executives.

From the candidate’s perspective, the question is becoming simple – do I want this job or not? Based on the evidence from Deloitte, a disconcerting proportion of executives are now considering the latter option. This creates a problem for chief human resources officers (CHROs) who are also under increasing pressure to deliver candidates that can meet an impossibly paradoxical set of requirements.

With so much at stake, organizations must be deliberate and diverse in their hiring approach. There is a give and take on both sides, but companies and CHROs may need to give a little more time, support and consideration to the pressures and strains that will ultimately fall on their new CEO from day one. Those organizations that invest in CEO readiness over the long term fare much better on all measures.

Balancing expectations

The hard reality is that these turbulent times mean that good leaders are required more than ever before. They may just need a little more help than ever too.

If an organization feels like it will be picking executives from an ever-diminishing pool of candidates, it’s critically important to look internally before scrutinising the market.

At the identification and courting stage, CHROs and executive search firms must manage the expectations of selection panels to ensure they can attract a diverse pool of candidates. To paraphrase a 2022 HBR piece, hiring candidates based on a holistic assessment of their social skills (ability to motivate a diverse, technologically savvy, global workforce), rather than focusing on traditional skills (technical competencies and experience), can avoid the issue of overly-pruned pools at the first stage of assessment.

Importantly, this approach doesn’t mean that companies have to compromise on what the role holder must deliver in terms of strategic goals, but it may mean considering candidates who require some degree of upskilling or development in certain areas that may be of increasing or emerging importance.

As the old saying goes, ‘a camel is a horse designed by committee,’ so it is critical that every board and executive leadership team has a clear, shared and reasonable vision for the future CEO of its organization. One that is grounded in need and aspirations and one that has an express appreciation that no leader (or person) is without limitations or flaws. From there, with the right support and onboarding, success is a metric that everyone can play their part in.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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