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UK CEOs have less time than ever to make their mark

May 15, 2017

More than three-quarters (76%) of new UK CEOs who started in their roles last year have no previous experience as CEO of a public company, but they also have less time than ever before to make an impact. The average length of time the CEO of a large UK business spends in the job has hit a low of 4.8 years, dipping below the global average of five years for the first time, and down from a UK high of 8.3 years in 2010 (see Figure 1).

Strategy&’s CEO Success Study, which tracks CEO succession at the world’s largest 2,500 public companies (including 300 in the UK), shows that UK companies have the highest turnover rate globally after Brazil, Russia and India. 16.3% of UK companies changed CEO last year, compared to the global average of 14.9%.

Figure 1: Median tenure of outgoing CEOs by region1

After a record share of outsider CEOs brought in by UK companies in 2015 (58%), the UK had its second smallest share of incoming outsider CEOs since 2009, falling to just one-fifth of companies (21%) looking externally for the top role.

UK companies have also been increasingly recruiting a higher share of UK nationals as CEOs over the past five years. In 2016, 85% of new CEOs were UK nationals, compared to just 67% in 2012. The share of UK CEOs with international work experience has declined over the same period - two-thirds (66%) of incoming CEOs in 2016 haven’t worked in other regions, up from 50% in 2012.

The share of incoming female CEOs in the UK’s largest businesses increased in 2016 to 7.3% (3 out of 41 total), up from 4.5% in 2015, but is still well below the peak of 10.6% in 2014 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Share of incoming female UK CEOs: 2009 - 2016

John-Paul Barker, UK leader of PwC’s strategy consulting business, Strategy&, said:

“UK CEOs now have less time than ever to make their mark on a business. The time they spend in the role has fallen from a high in 2010 to drop below the global average for the first time. Less than five years is a very short time to make real and tangible changes to a business. Stakeholders are demanding ever faster results, but should consider the long-term too to ensure stability.

“This year’s study shows the largest UK businesses are increasingly looking to homegrown talent to lead them through economically uncertain times. Wherever a new leader comes from, the companies which plan for CEO succession more carefully are more likely to perform better in the current market.”

Marco Amitrano, UK head of consulting at PwC, added:

“Today’s CEOs are operating in a period of rapid social, political and technological change. Navigating this unforgiving environment whilst trying to adapt and transform a business will always be a difficult task. With CEOs increasingly held accountable for their actions and given a short time in which to prove themselves, it is more essential than ever that they define a clear strategy to best position their company for future growth.”

The Five Trends Shaping CEO Accountability:

CEOs are held ever more accountable for the actions their company takes. This is increasingly important in the UK with short tenures and high turnover rates. Strategy& sees five key factors driving this shift:

  • Public opinion: Since the financial crisis of 2007–08 and the subsequent recession, confidence and trust in large corporations and CEOs has been in decline; the public has become more suspicious, more critical, and less forgiving of corporate behaviour;

  • Governance and regulation: The rise of public criticism of executives and organisations has translated directly into regulatory and legislative action, leading many companies moving towards to a zero-tolerance approach to C-suite behaviour;

  • Business operating environment: Companies are increasingly (1) pursuing growth in emerging markets where risks are heightened, and (2) relying on extended global supply chains that increase third party risks;

  • Digital communications: The use of email, text messaging, and social media has created new risks. A company’s digital communications can provide irrefutable evidence of conduct, and this increases the likelihood that a CEO will be held accountable;

  • The 24/7 news cycle: Unlike last century, when most executives and companies could maintain a low public profile, today the lightning-fast flow of online financial news and data means information, and especially negativity, travels quickly and widely.


Notes for editors.

  1. Figure 1 - Western Europe includes Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Guernsey, Ireland, Italy, Jersey, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

About the CEO Success Study: Over the course of the past 17 years, Strategy& has been tracking continuous data on CEO successions. This year's study analysed CEO successions at the world’s 2,500 largest (by market capitalisation) public companies over the last 10 years:

UK numbers outlined above always refer to the 300 largest companies headquartered in the UK, whereas all other global numbers refer to the 2,500 largest companies globally or subsets.

For more information, or to speak to a Strategy& / PwC spokesperson please contact Amy Tiernan on the details below.

About Strategy&

Strategy& is a global team of practical strategists committed to helping you seize essential advantage. We do that by working alongside you to solve your toughest problems and helping you capture your greatest opportunities. We bring 100 years of strategy consulting experience and the unrivaled industry and functional capabilities of the PwC network to the task.


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