From Boardroom to C-Suite: Why Would a Company Pick a Current Director as CEO?

David Larcker is Professor of Accounting at Stanford Graduate School of Business. This post is based on a paper authored by Professor Larcker and Brian Tayan, Researcher with the Corporate Governance Research Initiative at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

We recently published a paper on SSRN (From Boardroom to C-Suite: Why Would a Company Pick a Current Director as Its CEO?) that explores situations in which companies appoint a non-executive director from the board as CEO.

Many observers consider the most important responsibility of the board of directors its responsibility to hire and fire the CEO. To this end, an interesting situation arises when a CEO resigns and the board chooses neither an internal nor external candidate, but a current board member as successor.

Why would a company make such a decision? The benefit of appointing a current director to the CEO position is that the director can act as a hybrid “inside-outside” CEO. He or she is likely well versed in all aspects of the company, including strategy, business model, and risk-management practices. A current director likely also has personal relationships with the executive team and fellow board members, making it easier to determine cultural fit prior to hiring. At the same time, this individual is not a member of the current senior management team, and therefore has greater freedom to make organizational changes if needed. On the other hand, appointing a current director as CEO has potential drawbacks. The most obvious of these is that it signals a lack of preparedness on the company’s part to groom internal talent.

To understand the circumstances in which a company appoints a current board member as CEO, we conducted a search of CEO successions among Fortune 1000 companies between 2005 and 2016 and identified 58 instances where a non-executive (outside) director became CEO. Some companies made this decision more than once during the measurement period, and so our final sample includes 58 directors-turned-CEO at 50 companies.

Most director-turned-CEO appointments occur following a sudden resignation of the outgoing CEO. Over two-thirds (69 percent) follow a sudden resignation; whereas only one-third (31 percent) appear to be part of planned succession. Furthermore, director-turned-CEO appointments have an above average likelihood of following termination of a CEO for performance. Half (52 percent) of the outgoing CEOs in our sample resigned due to poor performance and an additional 12 percent resigned as part of a corporate-governance crisis, such as accounting restatement or ethical violation. That is, 64 percent of director-turned-CEO appointments followed a performance-driven turnover event compared to an estimated general market average of less than 40 percent.

Shareholders do not appear to be active drivers of these successions. In over three-quarter (78 percent) of the incidents in our sample, we failed to detect any significant press coverage of shareholder pressure for the outgoing CEO to resign. (This does not rule out the possibility that shareholders privately pressed the board of directors for change.) In 13 of 58 incidents (23 percent), a hedge fund, activist investor, or other major blockholder played a part in instigating the transition.

In most cases, companies name the director-turned-CEO as successor on the same day that the outgoing CEO resigns. In 91 percent of the incidents in our sample, the director was hired on the same day that the outgoing CEO stepped down; in only 9 percent of the incidents was there a gap between these announcements. When a gap did occur, the average number of days between the announcement of the resignation and the announcement of the successor was approximately four months (129 days). These situations included a mix of orderly successions and performance- or crisis-driven turnover.

The stock market reaction to the announcement of a director-turned-CEO is modest and not significantly different from zero. Because the outgoing CEO resignation tends to occur on the same day that the successor is named it is not clear how the market weighs the hiring decision of the director-turned-CEO relative to the news of the outgoing CEO resignation. In the small number of cases where the outgoing CEO resigned on a different date than the successor was appointed, we observe positive abnormal returns both to the resignation (2.4 percent) and to the succession (3.2 percent), suggesting that in these cases the market viewed these decisions favorably.

A large minority of director-turned-CEO appointments appear to be “emergency” appointments. In 45 percent of cases, directors were appointed CEO on an interim basis, although in a quarter of these the director was subsequently named permanent CEO. In the remaining 55 percent of cases, the director was named permanent CEO at the initial announcement date.

In terms of background, most directors-turned-CEO have significant experience with the company, with the industry, or as CEO of another company. Fifty-seven percent of directors-turned-CEO in our sample were recruited to the board during their predecessor’s tenure and served for an average of 6.9 years before being named CEO. Two-thirds (67 percent) had prior CEO experience at another company, and almost three-quarters (72 percent) had direct industry experience. Of note, only 9 percent had neither industry nor CEO experience.

Of note, directors-turned-CEO do not remain in the position very long, regardless of whether they are named permanently to the position or on an interim basis. We found that the directors-turned-CEO who served on an interim basis remained CEO for 174 days (just shy of 6 months) on average; directors permanently named to the CEO position remained CEO for only 3.3 years on average, compared to an average tenure of 8 years among all public company CEOs. It might be that their shorter tenure was driven by more challenging operating conditions at the time of their appointment, as indicated by the higher likelihood of performance-driven turnover preceding their tenure.

Finally, we do not find evidence that directors-turned-CEO exhibit above-average performance. Across our entire sample, we find slightly negative cumulative abnormal stock price returns (-2.3 percent) for companies who hire a director as CEO, relative to the S&P 500 Index. The results are similar when interim and permanent CEOs are evaluated separately. This suggests that the nature of the succession, rather than the choice of director as successor, is likely the more significant determinant of performance among these companies.

The complete paper is available for download here.

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