2019 was the year of the CEO exodus

The seat in the corner office has never felt so hot. With the jobless rate sitting at a 50-year low, a record number of CEOs left their high-paying jobs this year.

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NEUMANN: PETER PRATO—THE NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX; PAGE: DAVID PAUL MORRIS/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES: KOREY: JARED SISKIN—PATRICK MCMULLAN VIA GETTY IMAGES; MUNOZ: SAUL LOEB—AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

CEO departures through November rose 12% year-on-year to 1,480, according to executive outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. That was only four exits shy of the record set in 2008, during the turmoil of the global financial crisis. Since November, five more prominent chiefs have left their jobs: Alphabet’s Larry Page, United’s Oscar ­Munoz, Expedia’s Mark Okerstrom, Harold Hamm of oil producer Continental Resources, and Steph Korey of Away, a trendy luggage company.

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CEO departures through November rose 12% year-on-year to 1,480, according to executive outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas. That was only four exits shy of the record set in 2008, during the turmoil of the global financial crisis. Since November, five more prominent chiefs have left their jobs: Alphabet’s Larry Page, United’s Oscar ­Munoz, Expedia’s Mark Okerstrom, Harold Hamm of oil producer Continental Resources, and Steph Korey of Away, a trendy luggage company.

But unlike 2008, this isn’t a period of eco­nomic turbulence. Periods of booming stocks allow successful CEOs to hand over the reins without spooking investors. Alphabet’s Page—along with cofounder and president Sergey Brin, who also stepped down—­exemplifies this kind of smooth transition. All told, 36% of departing CEOs transitioned to another senior role at the company. Hamm, for example, stayed on as chairman.

But that doesn’t fully explain the surge in CEO turnover. “It’s surprising,” says Andrew Challenger of Challenger Gray. “It doesn’t jibe with what we’ve seen historically, but in some ways, it’s a tight labor market for CEOs too.” One clue is that more replacements are coming from outside candidates, not in-house. “This means companies are saying, ‘We don’t have the institutional knowledge to do this. We need to go out into the market and find new talent.’ ”

That trend is evident in the ever-evolving tech industry, where CEO ­exits have increased 45% this year. And shifting consumer tastes have roiled the retail, food, apparel, and entertainment industries: Together, they saw CEO departures rise 63%. When Nike CEO Mark Parker stepped down in October, the company tapped John Donahoe, formerly of eBay, to oversee a new push into e-commerce.

Unhappy shareholders made their voices heard this year too. Okerstrom left after clashing with Expedia’s board and its chairman Barry Diller; eBay’s Devin Wenig, meanwhile, departed under pressure from activist hedge funds. And 35 CEOs left under a cloud, whether because of résumé padding (Samsonite), regulatory backlash (Juul), or inappropriate behavior (McDonald’s). Most notably, WeWork’s board pressured Adam Neumann to step down in an effort to salvage a troubled IPO. 

But the fact that more CEOs are leaving because of bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean leadership is declining. “There’s always been misconduct among CEOs,” says Challenger. “But today it’s being looked at under a microscope.” 

A version of this article appears in the January 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “The Year of the CEO Exodus.”

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