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Many of the ambitious executives I speak to on a daily basis have aspirations to ultimately become CEO. In fact, at least 80% of execs will take the call from a headhunter when the role has this 3-letter acronym as its job title.

They’re interested for a range of reasons: career growth and challenge, financial rewards, status, the opportunity for impact…and others.

What is not usually seen, however, is the dark side of the leadership accountability that rests squarely on the CEO’s shoulders. And what is seldom anticipated is that if things don’t go well within a relatively short period of time, what may have seemed like a career trophy can turn into career suicide.

Because here’s the thing: shareholders are ruthless. And impatient. If you’re the CEO and the company is not performing to expectations – regardless of the circumstances – it’s a bit like Project Runway: ‘One day you’re in, and the next…you’re out’. (I’m channeling my inner Heidi Klum as I write this).

With the exception of Jeff Bezos and crew who seem to not need to show profitability or pay dividends EVER, what we see both locally in South Africa and globally, is that the CEO is usually first in line to receive the boot when the financial results are poor.

In the last little while, we’ve seen some high profile heads topple. When you drill down into the reasons, they are varied and are less important than this main fact: when the CEO loses the confidence of the board, he/she should be prepared to walk out the door. This loss of confidence may not be the result of impropriety or poor governance (although this is certainly sometimes the case); it may merely be due to differing stances on strategic direction, or expenditure, or new markets, or key appointments.

For a CEO, the kiss of death is a combination of tepid financial results and misalignment with board members.

So when you next receive a call from a headhunter offering you the top job, stop for a few minutes and evaluate whether you have the skills, nous, relationship abilities, and experience with influencing key stakeholders to take it on.

And, if you do, be prepared to do as much work on your board and shareholder relationships as you do on the business itself; this could make all the difference between a performance bonus and an exit package.

Debbie Goodman-Bhyat

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