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WeWork, eBay, and Wells Fargo: 2019 has seen a mass exodus of CEOs in the US

Erin Fuchs
Deputy Managing Editor

In just the past few weeks, the top executives at major U.S. companies including WeWork, eBay (EBAY), and Juul have left or been forced out of their posts — but they are just the latest exits in a year with an unusually high number of CEO departures.

In September, the executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, & Christmas released a report showing that a whopping 159 CEOs had departed in the month of August alone. That was the highest monthly total on record.

As of the end of August, 1,009 CEOs had decamped from their firms, 15% more than the 879 who had left as of August the previous year. Why are so many CEOs leaving their posts this year? Some may have been pushed out, as is the case of WeWork CEO Adam Neumann, whose erratic behavior made headlines as the co-working space company geared up to go public.

Other departures coincided with outside pressures on the company, such as e-cigarette company Juul’s CEO Kevin Burns, who left amid an epidemic of vaping related deaths. The same day the Burns resignation was announced, eBay’s Devin Wenig said he was leaving due to conflicts with the board, which had been shaken up recently at the behest of activist investors.

Credit: David Foster/Yahoo Finance

Other CEOs like Bloomin’ Brands Liz Smith explicitly left because of a “planned succession.” And while the occasional CEO like marijuana company Canopy Growth’s Bruce Linton might shout from the rooftops that they got canned, the real reasons for many top-chief departures may never be known.

Still, an educated observer can look at the context surrounding a CEO’s departure and surmise that they were likely pushed out. In August of this year, Exchange, which tracks executive departures, published an analysis showing that one in two CEOs steps down under “high pressure.” The report looked at 515 CEO departures in the U.S. in the past 24 months and examined a number of factors — from whether their tenure was “excessively short” to the tone of the departure announcement.

While the report used that context to determine the presence of “high pressure,” it found that only 2.9% of CEOs were ousted with a specific reference to misconduct. The above graphic shows major CEO departures announced in 2019. Indeed, CEOs who were explicitly axed were few and far between. Wells Fargo’s Tim Sloan officially “retired,” but his resignation came suddenly and after a seemingly never-ending series of scandals.

In the final three months of 2019, we may see even more resignations, some expected and others sudden and still others spurred by outside economic forces. Andy Challenger, a vice president at Challenger, Gray, & Christmas, recently suggested in a Fortune magazine interview that the faltering economic situation might spur some CEOs to leave their posts.

“With a lot of tensions on the horizon,” he said, “some CEOs are finding now is the time to put their succession plans into action."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included the CEO of M&T Bank. The error has been corrected.

Erin Fuchs is deputy managing editor at Yahoo Finance.

Read more:

Juul, eBay CEOs just got axed — clearly there is a big leadership crisis in America

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