Route to the Top 2020
Chief Executive Officer

Route to the Top 2020

In our latest Route to the Top, Heidrick & Struggles’ annual demographic study of chief executives, we examined how COVID-19 has—and hasn’t—changed what companies are looking for in CEOs.
Heidrick & Struggles
Route to the top 2020

In Heidrick & Struggles’ Route to the Top 2020, we analyzed the backgrounds of CEOs of 965 of the largest listed companies in 20 markets around the world to understand the skills and experiences that shaped their path to the top role. We also spoke with 10 CEOs from different regions and sectors to explore how they see their role evolving, both in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

It’s undeniable that the pandemic has quickly proven to be a once-in-a-century event, prompting the redefinition of everything from how and where we work to how we raise our children to how we interact with one another on a daily basis. It has profoundly altered the way companies see their purpose, their workforce, and even their organizational capacity for change.

We therefore looked closely at the CEOs who were appointed after March 11 of this year, when the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, and compared them to the CEOs appointed from January 2019 to March 10, 2020, to see how boards’ criteria for selecting their top leaders changed as a result of the crisis. Our findings indicate that companies have returned to the more traditional comfort zone of candidates, appointing more executives with prior CEO experience and a successful leadership track record; deprioritizing, for the moment, advanced education and racial and ethnic, gender, or industry diversity; as well as, to a larger extent, choosing external appointments over internal ones.

Alain Deniau discusses hiring CEOs during a pandemic

Last year many businesses rushed to hire externally, seeking experienced leadership with proven track records to secure survival. One year on, organizations need to relook at their priorities. Our partner Alain Deniau spoke with BBC on how succession planning is critical to ensure a steady pipeline of diverse and suitable candidates for top leadership roles.

In addition, this year’s report digs deeper into two areas: career paths and diversity across sectors. Taking a closer look at the trajectories of the careers of the CEOs in our study—specifically their previous two roles—we found 117 unique paths to the top role (for example, being a divisional vice president, then becoming a COO, and then the CEO, or a regional leader, then the CFO, and then the CEO). 

As far as diversity across sectors goes, in terms of both gender and the full range of career experience, we were able to explore how industry sectors benefit from fresh perspectives brought by diversity of thought.


Thanks to the following Heidrick & Struggles colleagues for their contributions to this report: Stafford Bagot, Niccolo Calabresi, Marie-Hélène De Coster, Sylvain Dhenin, Guy Farrow, Bonnie Gwin, Jenni Hibbert, David Hui, Catherine Lepard, Tobias Petri, Nick Pinner, Jeffrey Sanders, Oliver Schiltz, Nicolas von Rosty, and Linda Zhang.

In addition, Heidrick & Struggles also wishes to thank Guillaume Boutin, CEO, Proximus Group; Dr. Johannes Bussmann, CEO, Lufthansa Technik; Eamonn Crowley, CEO, Permanent TSB Group Holdings; Juan Jose Gonzales, CEO, Ambu; Penny James, CEO, Direct Line Group; Chris Kempczinski, president and CEO, McDonald’s; Jerry Liu, president, Cargill China; Stephen McCann, group CEO and managing director, Lendlease; Tony Narvaez, managing director, AusNet Services; James Riley, group chief executive, Mandarin Oriental; and Jean-Christophe Tellier, CEO, UCB, for sharing their insights. Their views are personal and do not necessarily represent those of the companies they are affiliated with.

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