Statistics on CEO Succession in the S&P 500

Matteo Tonello is Managing Director at The Conference Board, Inc. This post relates to a Conference Board report led by Dr. Tonello, Jason D Schloetzer of Georgetown University, and Melissa Aguilar of The Conference Board. For details regarding how to obtain a copy of the report, contact matteo.tonello@conference-board.org.

In our study, CEO Succession Practices (2013 Edition), which The Conference Board recently released, we document and analyze 2012 cases of CEO turnover at S&P 500 companies. The study is organized in four parts.

Part I: CEO Succession Trends (2000-2012) illustrates year-by-year succession rates and examines specific aspects of the succession phenomenon, including the influence on firm performance on succession and the characteristics of the departing and incoming CEOs.

Part II: CEO Succession Practices (2012) details where boards assign responsibilities on leadership development, the role performed within the board by the retired CEO, and the extent of the disclosure to shareholders on these matters.

Part III: Notable Cases of CEO Succession (2012) includes summaries of 11 episodes of CEO succession that made headlines in the past two years and that were carefully chosen to highlight key circumstances of the process.

Part IV: Shareholder Activism on CEO Succession Planning (2012) reviews examples of companies that have recently faced shareholder pressure in this area.

The following are some of the major findings discussed in the study:

Despite steady average CEO succession rates, dismissals hit a 10-year high in 2012. In 2012, 53 CEOs in the S&P 500 left their post. The rate of CEO succession in calendar year 2012 was 10.9 percent, consistent with the average number of annual succession announcements from 2000 through 2011. The rate of CEO dismissals varies widely across the 2000–2012 period, ranging from 40.0 percent in 2002 to 13.2 percent in 2005 (on average, 24.5 percent for the period). In 2012, 31.4 percent of all successions were non-voluntary departures, the highest rate recorded since 2003.

Companies in the services industries experienced higher than average CEO succession rates. The rate of CEO succession had significant variation across industry groups during 2012. The services industry had a succession rate of 18.0 percent in 2012, higher than its 13-year average of 16.2 percent. By contrast, the extraction industry, which includes mining, petroleum products, and natural gas companies, had a succession rate of only 5.6 percent during 2012, lower than its 13-year average of 9.5 percent.

Companies increasingly look outside to hire their CEOs. In 2012, 27.1 percent of S&P 500 companies that faced a CEO succession hired an outsider for the top job. While the rate confirms a trend recorded since the 1970s, it is much higher than the 19 percent reported in 2011. This finding may suggest that there is a need to continue to strengthen companies’ leadership development practices. The heated pay-for-performance debate of the last few years has induced boards of directors to increase the rigor of the CEO selection process: the growing percentage of outsiders chosen as new CEOs may show that directors don’t always like what they find within the companies’ ranks. Moreover, a number of companies that underwent a succession event in 2012 selected a director from their own board as the new CEOs. The director-turned-CEO succession model provides companies with a chief executive who is familiar with corporate strategy and key stakeholders, thereby reducing leadership transition risk.

CEO departure may offer opportunity to reconsider board leadership model. Only 18.8 percent of successions in 2012 involved the immediate joint appointment of an individual as CEO and chairman of the board of directors. Based on succession announcements, one-third of departing CEOs remained as board chairman for at least a brief transition period, typically until the next shareholder meeting, while several departing CEOs retained significant influence with the company as board chairman. In some cases (Iron Mountain), the succession was used as an opportunity to reconsider the board leadership structure and adopt a CEO/board chairman separation model. Alternatively, the boards of Altria Group, Boston Scientific, CA Inc., and Murphy Oil retained the expertise of the departing CEO via a consulting contract rather than a position on the board.

Formal succession process is credited for the choice of new CEO, except when the CEO is hired from outside. Perhaps surprisingly, only 22.9 percent of succession announcements among S&P 500 companies in 2012 explicitly stated that the incoming CEO was identified through the board’s succession planning process. This is noticeably lower than the 32.4 percent of successions that referred to the succession planning process in 2011. There appears to be a link between inside promotion to the CEO position and the succession planning process—31.6 percent of announcements that mention the board’s role in the succession planning process involve an insider appointment as incoming CEO, whereas no successions that involve an outside hire reference succession planning.

Mantatory CEO retirement policies remain seldom used. Mandatory CEO retirement policies based on age are an infrequent element of CEO succession plans. Only 11.8 percent of manufacturing companies and 8 percent of nonfinancial services companies adopt an age-based mandatory retirement policy for CEOs; the number is lower in the financial industry. The highest level of policy adoption (19.4 percent) is reported by manufacturing and nonfinancial companies with annual revenue of $20 billion or greater.

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