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Why so-called boomerang CEOs are returning to their jobs

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some of the highest-paid people in this country seem to have trouble walking away from their jobs. We've recently seen Bob Iger returning to Disney. Michael Dell is back at Dell, Inc. And Howard Schultz is leading Starbucks again. One reason is that these so-called boomerang CEOs are not planning for their own succession. Our colleague Leila Fadel spoke about this with Cindy Solomon, an executive leadership expert and author.

CINDY SOLOMON: Well, I think there's a couple of reasons. And I think the boomerang really epitomizes the issues around succession planning and large organizations right now. My experience with the work that we do is that large organizations really stop investing in leadership development in those C-suite levels, which is what then leads to a lack of true bench strength, both when it comes to promotions into this level and certainly when it comes to replacing a CEO. I think the perception is that by the time you reach that C-suite level, you really should have all the skills you need. And by golly, if you don't, don't let on or certainly ask for help. And I think it's this lack of leadership skill and focus on building those basic leadership and communication skills that leads to the lack of bench strength when it is time for that CEO to move on.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

But why aren't they thinking in that long-term way about identifying and training successors so that a new generation can take the reins?

SOLOMON: I think it's more schoolyard than corporate boardroom. I mean, the process of really building your successor at that CEO level - it requires a subjugation of your own ego to the needs of the organization. And if a CEO wants their successor to be successful after they depart, they really have to turn over the keys to the kingdom, if you will. They have to let their successor in on the secrets of things that only they know about. At the C-suite level, you really don't get experience in how to manage a board or how to deal with their largest shareholders. And I think particularly - and I'm going to say something provocative here - but particularly male CEOs have a particularly difficult time letting go of those reins.

FADEL: And so what you're saying is they can't put their egos in check to let somebody else shine.

SOLOMON: Absolutely. Every female CEO that I can think of, particularly in the Fortune 500, that has needed a succession plan and executed one has been really successful doing it.

FADEL: So what happens to a company when its top leader stays in a position for so long? What happens if that change just doesn't occur?

SOLOMON: Any bench strength that you did have below you in that C-suite - they leave for other opportunities. So those that believe they are ready or certainly want to take on that task - if they don't see any head room above them, any movement in that CEO level, they depart for other opportunities. So now you've already lost the cream at the top of the barrel for that CEO role. The outside world changes dramatically, as well. And maybe the skills that it took you to be a fantastic 10, ten, 15, 20 years ago don't translate when the world has changed so dramatically around you. But if you look at the boards, they're in the same position.

FADEL: The stability of it all - is that what appeals to boards and shareholders? Do they see that as a benefit?

SOLOMON: I think the reality is that they're just comfortable. They're comfortable with the way this person leads. They're not challenged with new ideas or innovative thinking. So change is hard. And I think it's frightening, particularly for those long-term board members who are used to doing things a certain way.

FADEL: You know, it's interesting because I feel like we can take this conversation we're having about executives and apply it elsewhere in the country right now, namely politics between...

SOLOMON: Oh, absolutely.

FADEL: ...Older presidential candidates, members of Congress. I mean, does this succession issue go beyond the boardroom?

SOLOMON: You know, you look at some of these folks making - creating laws around family leave or health care, etc., when they're in their 70s and 80s. They have no conscious memory of what it's like to be in those positions or in those roles. And I think you can say the same thing about the boardroom and about those C-suite executives.

FADEL: Cindy Solomon is an executive leadership expert and author. Thank you so much, Cindy, for your time.

SOLOMON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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