So you REALLY want to be a CEO?

January 4, 2011

You see the job listings on our web site and phone to make your case. You have run various line functions in large concerns or perhaps the Canadian office of some international company. Or maybe you are the General Manager of a business unit or a consultant who puts balm on various organizational wounds. Whatever the story you are certain that you are ready to take the next step in your career. Brimming with varying degrees of confidence, competence and experience you are ready to apply for and be anointed Chief Executive Officer..

But are you? Do you have the royal jelly for the corner office? Can you see beyond the glamour and glory, the power and the trappings to what really goes on where the buck stops? And are you prepared to pay the price of time, effort, sacrifice, loneliness and stress attached to such roles?

Consider the recent story of Jeffrey Kindler, a Harvard educated lawyer who was a successful executive at McDonald’s Restaurants before joining Pfizer in 2002 as legal counsel. In late 2006 when the CEO role opened up at the world’s largest drug company, Kindler pursued it aggressively positioning himself as the outsider, the change agent who would bring fresh ideas and a different perspective to the firm. In the great tradition of be careful what you wish for, Mr. Kindler was subsequently appointed the firm’s CEO.

A few weeks ago Mr. Kindler resigned his post at Pfizer, a victim it has been suggested of burnout and stress. Articles describe the unrelenting demands of the job, prominent R&D setbacks, the $68bb acquisition and integration of Wyeth, and Mr. Kindler’s additional responsibilities as chairman of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. They also detail a life of incredibly long hours, global travel, and the shareholder pressures that accompany an uncooperative stock price. For the well-liked Kindler, who apparently took each and every setback personally, the pressures mounted until he became increasingly volatile and even unpredictable. Fearing for the health of their frazzled CEO, the board offered to appoint a COO to alleviate the workload. But it was too little, too late and Mr. Kindler resigned from his post.

The business press rarely recounts such naked tales of unrelenting pressure, corrosive stress, overwork and burn-out in the executive suite. Instead, we are usually left to read between the lines as the CEO rides off to ‘pursue other interests’ or ‘attends to family matters’. The WSJ so much as acknowledged this when they termed Mr. Kindler’s tale ‘idiosyncratic’ and a ‘rare nod to the toll of the job’. But the reality is that while the corner office is attractive from afar it is a fatal attraction to many who cross its threshold. More than simply an accretive next step on a long ladder of success, running the show is a calling, for which executives must reflect long and hard before picking up that receiver. Based on the sheer number and variety of people who stridently tell me each and every week that they are the chosen ones, I would surmise that not everyone agrees.

About the author

Robert Hebert is the founder and Managing Partner of StoneWood Group Inc., a leading executive search firm in Canada. Since 1981, he has helped firms across a wide range of sectors address their senior recruiting, assessment and leadership development requirements. Contact Robert by email at rhebert@stonewoodgroup.com or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777.