India Inc’s C-suite executives are under stress. Leadership jobs have become tougher and more demanding than ever, given intense scrutiny from various stakeholders, rising expectations about performance, and low tolerance for slip-ups, experts said.

Amid a constant pressure to perform, a survey of 1,115 leaders across Indian enterprises showed that all of them have faced at least one career-threatening event in the last year – nearly a fourth (23%) of them due to board disputes.

Public relations issues (22%), economic downturns (13%), cybersecurity breaches (12%) market changes (10%), regulatory/compliance matters (10%) and M&A challenges (10%) were among the other issues that posed a significant risk to CXO careers, according to the upGrad Harappa Grand CXOs and Workplace report shared exclusively with ET.

“Be it technological advancements or regulatory shifts, today’s world of business is changing at a crazy pace. There’s a greater focus on performance than ever before and boards are having to take action accordingly,” Shreyasi Singh, founder and CEO of upGrad Harappa, told ET.

The advent of social media adds to the pressure. “Sometimes CXOs are walking into landmines without knowing it’s going to blow up,” Singh said. “And when that happens, whether it’s fair or unfair, companies are pushed to take a decision to show they are doing something.”

There is also a challenge in professionals taking up bigger roles at a younger age. They are not as seasoned and consequently may be less equipped to deal with all the complexities that come their way, Singh said.The report shows that 71% of CXOs primarily learn on the job; 18% say they actively pursue new skills; and only 11% frequently enrol for training.Learning on the job, however, can have an impact on confidence – only 27% who do so say they feel confident about delivering mandates.

Constant disruption, more pressure:
“We are going through an era of constant disruption and the highest pressure is on CXOs,” said business transformation advisor Manoj Kohli, chairman of MK Knowledge. “They have to track every key shift and movement, be it in geopolitics, technology, climate change; link the macro of the change to the micro of the business and constantly connect the dots. That’s not easy. You can go wrong, and if you do, tolerance is low.”

Kohli in his previous stints has been Softbank India country head and Bharti Airtel CEO.

As reported by ET earlier, Corporate India reported a record number of CEO exits in 2023, on the back of a variety of factors including higher expectations and declining tolerance for underperformance in the top job and an increasingly complex and challenging business environment.

High-stakes environment:
In a high-growth, hypercompetitive environment, as compensation goes through the roof, so do performance expectations.

“The more the money, the less the rope,” said K Sudarshan, managing director of executive search firm EMA Partners India. “There is no choice to take it easy and CXOs are literally judged on a quarter-to-quarter basis. If found wanting, no one is indispensable… The reality is that there is no downtime,” he said.

It may explain why even CXOs are keen to avoid unnecessary conflicts within the organisation.

The survey found that 42% deny conflicts in teams, 25% delay the conversation, and only 33% discuss a solution.

When it comes to hiring, 68% of respondents said they prefer to hire people who are in alignment with their thoughts while 21% prefer some misalignment.


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