Why is the tech industry losing record numbers of CEOs?

Tech companies of all sizes are watching their CEOs move onto other roles or retire -- in large numbers.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Jack Dorsey's resignation as CEO of internet giant Twitter is the latest departure in what has been a record number of tech CEO resignations over the past two years.

The November 2021 report from executive recruitment firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas found that CEO exits rose in October 2021, totaling 21 tech CEO exits for the month and 144 for the year so far. The worst month on record for tech CEO departures was in January 2020 with 35 leaving.

This trend hit its high mark just before the COVID-19 pandemic, and then it continued at high levels into the lockdowns and through today's confusing returns to work and vaccine mandates. 

Challenger, Gray & Christmas reports that "retirement" was often the top reason cited by former CEOs for resigning, while others said they left because of better opportunities at other companies.  

Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas, notes in an August 2021 report that there are plenty of other factors: "Leaders have a slew of unique issues to navigate now in terms of talent management, retention, hiring, and reimagining the workplace post-COVID."

The CEOs/founders of giant US technology companies, like Amazon, Google, Twitter and Facebook, face pressures beyond those of the average CXO. Many have been called to testify before US politicians about everything from their roles in allowing nefarious organizations to meddle in US elections and to their inability to control hate speech and fake news.

For these top CEOs, the hostile political and public scrutiny -- after years of being adored in the public realm as geek gods -- must be jarring.

CEO Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders at Google, slipped away without any fanfare at the end of December 2019. Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder at Amazon, exited mid-2021. Now that Dorsey is leaving Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg is the last CEO/founder still standing among the giant internet firms.

The zeitgeist has been shifting against the tech industry for years, and many have concluded there's no way to fight it. 

The problem lies within the fundamental nature of these giant internet businesses: they collect massive amounts of data on each of their users to power their advertising networks. It's an unsustainable business model because politicians around the world eventually recognize that this practice is poisonous to their societies. How so? It makes possible covert targeted political messaging -- not just commercial messaging, such as ads selling shoes -- leading these politicians to impose strict controls.

A key example is the California Privacy Rights act that goes into effect in January 2023. It will have a major impact on the collection and sale of personal data on California residents. 

Now, other US states are discussing similar laws.

New legislation seeking to control or breakup large tech companies will take several years to come to fruition. It won't be long before politicians demand public testimony from top tech executives, as the process of the US legislature grinds its way towards justifying new laws and regulations.

It's no wonder these tech CEOs are getting out of the way -- except for Zuckerberg, who doesn't seem to mind the public scrutiny and the increasingly regular summons from Capitol Hill. 

Page, Google's former CEO, would avoid testimony by claiming that he has a medical condition that forces him to speak in a whisper. But Zuckerberg seems to relish it, appearing several times before senators. 

And what is remarkable is that he sits alone. 

There is no lawyer next to him, whispering advice; there is no Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer, jointly shouldering the ire of the politicians. Similarly, Zuckerberg shows no signs of following his peers and becoming a former CEO. He's determined to find a way forward and retain his job. 

His latest tactic, in terms of handling the enormous amount of public criticism of Facebook's management and of tech industry in general, is changing the name of his company.

Meta is the new name, and the "metaverse" is its new focus. 

See also: Why I will never use Zuckerberg's metaverse.

Zuckerberg knows that highly targeted advertising -- the core of Facebook's money machine -- is headed for history's trash bin. In the meantime, he hopes to buy time to transition towards a different business model and confuse his critics with vaporous hype about building a new type of tech business for all. It might work.

Zuckerberg has made his decision, the one CEOs everywhere are facing: How do we adapt to a post-Covid world, and how do we transition businesses to succeed in a new work environment and global economy? The role needs new vision, and some CEOs realize they don't have what it will take. 

Getting out of the way is a good move. 

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