CEO careers: A case of rinse and repeat?

September 16, 2011: 11:43 AM ET

In the game of corporate musical chairs, room is often made even for those executives and board members from disgraced companies. And there are few signs that this will let up.

By Elizabeth G. Olson, contributorCEO careers: A case of rinse and repeat

FORTUNE – Do executive careers die? Or do they just get recycled?

One thing seems certain: When executives or board members head for the exit -- for whatever reason -- they often don't get tagged as tainted. In fact, they regularly pop up again on the corporate landscape in similar jobs with little apparent damage to their careers.

A string of recent executive departures -- Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Carol Bartz to Bank of America's (BAC) division presidents Sallie Krawcheck and Joe Price, to name a few – raises the question of whether this cycle will continue.

Rinsing and recycling familiar business leaders is far from new. Whether you call it the executive class or the corporate elite, a narrow band of execs have been hop-scotching to and from well-paid perches for decades.

Boards replete with buddies rubberstamp executive decisions -- but no one pays attention until something goes wrong, and outsiders delve into board connections. What gives?

Familiar feels comfortable

"There is a comfort level issue here," explains Sydney Finkelstein, professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "You could find five experts for a board opening, and one's from the country club, and that's that."

Finkelstein says that executives and board members have to spend a fair amount of time together, and it's easier with a known quantity. The risk, however, says Finkelstein, author of Why Smart Executives Fail, is that "directors might be more concerned about friendships and connections."

In the game of corporate musical chairs, room is often made for even those from disgraced companies, according to a new Stanford study, called "Scarlet Letter: Are the CEOs and Directors of Failed Companies 'Tainted'?"

Former directors of the insurance giant American International Group (AIG), like Ellen Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History, and Marshall A. Cohen, former Molson Co. (TAP) CEO, for example, escaped unblemished and have migrated to the boards of other major public companies, including JP Morgan Chase (JPM) and TD Ameritrade (AMTD).

Directors of defunct companies like Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia Bank and Washington Mutual have resurfaced on the boards of corporate behemoths like Verizon (VZ), Dow Chemical (DOW), Hewlett Packard (HPQ) and Nike (NKE). More

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