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The Angst of Endangered CEOs: ‘How Much Time Do I Have?’

From left, Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric; Mickey Drexler, CEO of J. Crew Group Inc.; and Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber.

The bosses of America’s biggest and best-known companies are learning a common lesson this year: The pay is great, but job security has rarely been shakier.

In June alone, the chief executives of General Electric Co., Uber Technologies Inc., Whirlpool Corp. WHR 0.73% , Buffalo Wild Wings Inc., BWLD -3.55% Perrigo Co. PRGO -1.29% and Pandora Media Inc. resigned or announced their departures. Among those, only Whirlpool’s Jeff Fettig didn’t have to confront investor pressure in the months before announcing he will step down.

Their exits follow an especially busy season of upheaval in corner offices. In the first five months of 2017, 13 companies with market values of more than $40 billion installed new CEOs—including American International Group Inc., AIG -0.82% Ford Motor Co. F -1.99% , and Caterpillar Inc. CAT 0.79% —according to an analysis for The Wall Street Journal by executive-recruitment firm Crist/Kolder Associates. That is more than double the CEO changes at mega-corporations in the same period last year.

This chief executive churn reflects a broader reality for the country’s business elite: An array of challenges—from increasing impatience on Wall Street and in boardrooms to a corporate landscape rapidly transformed by new technologies and rival upstarts—have made the top job tougher and more precarious than just a few years ago, top executives say. Even the biggest companies are vulnerable to shareholder disapproval and competitive forces that their size and stature once helped them fend off.

The typical CEO of a major company a decade ago resembled a ship captain “who could rally a group of people with a lot of process and procedures,” said Deborah Rubin, a senior partner at RHR International, a leadership-development firm. “Today’s CEO has to be much more...


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