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Consumer Reports

Survey: 73% of executives think about quitting, 80% lose sleep | (KRT) CEOs are an unhappy lot. So unhappy, it seems, that three out of four contemplate chucking their jobs.

That's the startling finding in a recent survey by Burson-Marsteller, the New York-based global communications consultancy.

A whopping 73 percent of 369 CEOs answered yes to the question, "Do you think about quitting your job?"

More than 80 percent are kept awake at night by company demons, including worries about the competition and how to increase business and make shareholders happy.

And their corporate throne isn't as coveted by up-and-comers as it once was. More than a third of the 390 executives on the next rung down would decline a promotion to the top spot.

Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief knowledge and research officer at Burson-Marsteller - yes, that's really her title - is amazed by the prevalence of CEO angst but understands why it exists.

The image of American CEOs has been severely tainted in the last two years. They operate in a pressure-cooked, prove-it-now environment. And they increasingly find themselves in combative situations with their boards, customers, investors and the media.

It's truly lonely at the top.

"The pendulum has swung to the extreme," Gaines-Ross said of the hypercriticism plaguing Corporate America. "All CEOs are guilty. All boards are unaccountable and haven't been asking the right questions. Everyone in business is greedy. That's simply not the case."

This sullied reputation has gotten much worse. Once, Enron Corp. and Tyco International Ltd. were considered exceptions. Now, some industries - financial services and mutual funds, for example - are rife with disgraced leadership.

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"Just look at what's happened in the past few weeks," Gaines-Ross said, pointing to CEOs forced out at Boeing Co., Delta Air Lines Inc. and Hollinger International Inc., which publishes the Chicago Sun-Times.

Then there's the battle of the titans going on at Walt Disney Co.

She's particularly troubled about the reluctance among the next generation of executives to assume the CEO mantle. Nearly half the senior-level female executives said they no interest in becoming chief executive. One in three males was CEO-averse.

"The talented, younger executives are saying, `What do I need this for?'" said Gaines-Ross, who holds a doctorate in education from New York University. "We're going to have a hard time finding the right people to run our companies. That's going to be really bad."

Another flash point is how little time top executives are given to prove themselves.

Another survey, by RoperASW, found that new CEOs have just 14 months to make good on their initial strategic initiatives or face the corporate thumbscrew.

"That's definitely unrealistic, but it's reality," said Gaines-Ross, the 53-year-old author of ``CEO Capital: A Guide to Building CEO Reputation and Success,'' published this year. "It points out just how difficult the job is."

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. It polled 1,040 so-called "influential stakeholders" - financial analysts, institutional investors, government officials, board members and media along with the big-time executives.

Under that timeline, Sam Gilliland, named chief executive and president of Sabre Holdings Corp. on Monday, has to make his mark by the end of January 2005.

How does he feel about that?

Well, we got an answer without a response. Thursday was his second official day at the helm, and Gilliland's handlers said he didn't have time to chat.

Gaines-Ross hopes that the economy will improve next year and that some of the excessive pressure on CEOs to perform magic tricks will ease. "But we're never going back to the celebrity status of the `90s," she predicts.

And, she said, some changes are positive.

Chief executives are expected to spend 60 percent of their time implementing their game plans and only 40 percent dreaming them up.

"It used to be 70 percent vision and 30 percent execution," she said. "CEOs and their top teams now have to pay keen attention to operations and details. Failure to do this tends to be where companies get screwed up.

"CEOs have to be involved, not just kingpins."

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© 2003, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services