Why CEOs Are Leaving Their Jobs at Younger Ages + What Might Be Behind Crocs, Deckers Exits

It’s becoming harder and harder for average Americans to envision retirement by 65. Yet two top footwear C-suite executives made waves last week when they announced their decisions to leave the workforce well before that age.

Crocs on Feb. 1 revealed that its 55-year old president Michelle Poole would retire in May. That same day, Deckers Brands announced that its president and chief executive officer Dave Powers — who was listed as being 57 years old in a July 2023 Proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission — would retire in August.

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The exit of these two leaders — both coming several years in advance of the typical retirement age — is not necessarily representative of the norm. The average age of retiring CEOs has remained consistent since 2010, between the ages of 62 and 65, according to January data from executive outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. But when it comes to CEO exits for all reasons, including retirement, data shows that these leaders are exiting their posts at younger ages than ever before. The average age of a CEO leaving his or her post in 2023 was 56, down from an average age of over 63 in 2017, Challenger, Gray & Christmas found.

In the case of Crocs and Deckers — two companies that have done extraordinarily well in recent years — the sudden departure of these younger executives at the top of their games might represent a calculated effort to set themselves up for future success.

“You want to go out with a bang,” explained Jane Hali & Associates analyst Jessica Ramirez. “You leave with a legacy.”

And while the executives might have used specific language around retiring, they could always come back into the industry for the right C-suite role or board position, Ramirez said.

“When we look at appointments, we always consider what their background is and where they were successful,” Ramirez said. “For a brand that might need help, [their track records] are going to be looked at as a positive.”

In addition to setting themselves up for future success, CEOs leaving the role at younger ages could also be a result of generally high turnover in the role. Challenger, Gray & Christmas also found that 1,914 CEOs left their posts in 2023, which was up 55 percent from 2022 and marked the highest number of exits on record since the firm began tracking this data in 2002. In the shoe industry, there were 76 C-level appointments in 2023, according to executive search firm Kirk Palmer & Associates. Notable 2023 shoe CEO exits included Wolverine Worldwide’s Brendan Hoffman, Academy Sports + Outdoors’ Ken Hicks and Macy’s Inc.’s Jeff Gennette.

Broadly, these large moves have been result of a retail industry and economy in flux since the pandemic.

“Historically, we’ve seen large economic shifts preceded by a surge in CEO exits,” said Andrew Challenger, workplace expert and senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc in a statement.

At the same time, the changing expectations — and pressures — on top business leaders could also contribute to a CEO’s desire to bow out of a role earlier than before.

“There is a spotlight on these leaders, and although they have always been held accountable for the success or the struggles of a brand, more people are watching,” said Liza Amlani, principal and founder of consulting company Retail Strategy Group. “This is added pressure for leaders to drive profitability. Times are changing and leaders like Michelle Poole of Crocs are choosing to leave on a high note.”

Additionally, Amlani noted that the desire to prioritize mental health, which has become more common amid discussions of work-life balance in a post-pandemic world, could also be a factor in CEOs deciding to step down from the helms from successful — or struggling — companies.

“This was never considered an option a decade ago,” Amlani said.

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