Do You Have Restless CEO Syndrome?

By Brian O’Donnell
CEO-in-Residence and Strategic Facilitator

Restless CEO Syndrome (RCS) is a fairly common condition. Symptoms can include frustration and impatience with your company as a whole, discomfort with the direction it’s taking, and aggravation due to misalignment with your vision. You may especially experience this restlessness when dealing with company performance, as well as the overall culture and attitude of your team.

This condition stems mostly from a deeply felt responsibility to guide your company and to make the difficult shifts as your products, customer base and markets change.

All kidding aside, being restless is a challenge for many CEOs, no matter what their situation. In a recent discussion with a group of 10 CEOs, the challenges varied: One was planning for a business sale while another had just completed his...another was in the midst of a merger and one is starting a complete shift in business model...two were scaling up aggressively, while revamping their sales approach. Very different scenarios, but what they all had in common was a feeling of restlessness with the current state of their company.


What are some of the causes of RCS?


This condition stems mostly from a deeply felt responsibility to guide your company and to make the difficult shifts as your products, customer base and markets change.

As I was talking with the CEOs I mentioned above, one commented that, “Thirty years ago, CEOs were rewarded to ‘stay the course’ on steady and long-term plans, but now there’s a hyper focus on information, and seismic forces moving and changing market needs at unprecedented speed.” The group agreed that these factors put higher pressure on them to shift their businesses more quickly. All great causes for restlessness.

Two other causes that can’t be overlooked are hard-wiring and conditioning. Many CEOs by nature are hard driving towards goals and progress. They are always looking for ways to shake things up and move in new directions. And then there is the conditioning of early business experiences along their career path. As one CEO said, “The DNA of many CEOs is entrepreneurial early in their careers, and the muscle that develops from those early experiences is always there and drives a need for constant stimulation and movement.”


Is RCS a good or bad thing?

The Pros: The group of CEOs all agreed that having the impetus and energy to drive necessary change in the organization is critical. When things are going well, someone needs to look outward to understand what is changing in the marketplace and with the competition, and make the necessary pivots. That could be in terms of how they interact with customers, bring new offerings to the marketplace, enter new geographies – or make a significant shift in their business model.  The CEO is the one who can get the attention of the organization and rally it to the difficult changes that may need to be made. That restlessness is what drives CEOs to take the necessary risks to move ahead in today’s business world.

The Cons: On the other hand, restlessness can result in impulsive, ineffective and demotivating language and behaviors that have the potential to drive defensiveness, divisiveness and fear within your organization. We have all seen (or been part of) examples of companies where the CEO was constantly shifting goals, priorities and direction, leading to confusion in the organization, and an inability to make progress.  

I once worked for an extremely restless CEO in a publicly traded company who separated a large part of the business and deemed it a ‘non-going concern’ and put it up for sale...only to reverse his decision nine months later. The result was that the stock price went from $27 per share to under $1 per share in a period of three years. He was charismatic, outspoken, and well-educated. However, he created a work environment where people struggled to keep up with his constantly changing perspectives, and could never make any real progress.


How to make RCS work for you? It’s all about balance.

Making the internal drive created by restlessness work positively for you takes careful thought and process. As a CEO said to the group, “It’s a balance thing. You have to balance it out with patience, making sure the desire for change and shifts in the business are driven by key strategic reasons and given enough time.” Amen.

In our Strategic Leaders program, we specifically focus on engaging, developing and enlisting the support of the key leadership team so that they can participate and provide feedback on the changes the CEO wants to see (the reason for the restlessness). As a CEO, understanding what is making you restless when it comes to your vision for the company and the needed strategy is critical. You have to be able to clearly articulate the reasons and rationale for the organization to be able to support you.

If you feel the company direction needs to change, you don’t have the right people in the right places, or that the marketplace is shifting and you need to pivot your business model, then don’t just be restless, drive action. Just make sure you ground your action in a clear and compelling vision, and the logical strategies to get there. Also, articulate it in such a way that you can enlist the support of your staff and employees. You don’t want to be the CEO “charging the hill” with nobody following you.

While it may need to be dialed back a bit and tempered with patience, using some of your restlessness as a CEO can be the key to an organization's success. It’s your role to shine a light on needed strategy shifts and to lead needed change efforts in your company.

It’s okay if you have a case of RCS...you just need to find the best ways to put it to work for you.


Contact Brian O’Donnell at bodonnell@raffonigroup.com