Leaving the Rat Race Early

Executives are eyeing exits much earlier in their careers to seek part-time gigs. But there’s a delicate balance between saying you want to work less—and still contributing.

The executive had always planned to work into his mid-sixties. But after three years of long hours and pandemic instability, he started placing calls to recruiters, asking what sorts of interim or part-time roles might be available. Anything to get out of his current marathon of overtime and stress.

Decades earlier than they’d anticipated, more and more managers and leaders are eyeing exits. Their numbers hit record highs in each of the last two years, with over 1,000 CEOs exiting through the first ten months of this year, including 20 from top retailers. While some leaders have been forced out, expert say many are leaving on their own. “They’re looking down the runway and seeing that the grind is going to continue,” says corporate-strategy expert Anu Gupta, senior client partner at Korn Ferry. “Many have already hit their personal financial goals, and now they want to be engaged and intellectually challenged.”

Much of the shift comes from the double whammy of the current economic outlook—which can limit executives’ horizons and make C-suite roles particularly challenging—combined with a stressful past few years. In response, leaders are making early exits at surprisingly young ages and, in some cases, turning to part-time gigs.

For example, “the vast majority” of interim candidates are in their 50s to early 60s,” says Mike Harris, CEO of Korn Ferry’s Interim Executive practice. In a typical case, Harris says, an executive retires from full-time work and hangs up their own shingle, perhaps advertising themselves as an experienced CEO available for interim or rent-a-CFO work. They might later work with recruiters to expand into wider business opportunities. “They want to keep busy at an executive level, even gig to gig,” he says.

Recruiters say they are receiving many calls from younger executives, and that those conversations tend to be more thoughtful and open-ended than in prior years, with an eye toward longer-term planning rather than fast moves. “They’re saying, ‘I’m spent, I need to know that there’s an end date, and then I want to do three to five years of board work or something similar,’” says Dan Kaplan, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s CHRO practice.

In conversations with prospective employers, executives on this path must show that their preference for less intensive work doesn’t indicate a lack of interest or commitment. “It’s a red flag if someone throws up obstacles and seems more interested in what they don’t want to do,” says Brad Frank, senior client partner in the Technology practice at Korn Ferry. Engagement and excitement, he says, matter much more than the size of the role.