On hindsight, the surprise is that it hasn't happened more often. Last week Pierre Wauthier, the Chief Financial Officer of Zurich Insurance, tragically committed suicide. This starkly illustrates the unbelievable pressures top business executives function under.
Zurich Insurance is one of the top insurance companies in the world. Recently, it has been going through a bad patch, although by no means disastrous. The CFO is often the one required to stand up before investors to explain results and is invariably the target of criticism and calls to be sacked. The circumstances behind Mr Wauthier's unfortunate demise are not fully clear, but it is inconceivable that work pressures did not play a part. His widow has certainly hinted that Josef Ackermann, the Chairman of Zurich bore some responsibility. Ackermann denied any such thing but promptly resigned as Chairman.
Only a certain breed of individuals reach the top of the business world. A masochist streak, politely termed as "the killer instinct" is one of the pre requisite qualities. Perhaps such individuals also possess tremendous resilience - maybe one of the reasons why we don't witness such unfortunate events more often. Otherwise the tremendous pressures exerted on those who have a Chief prefixed to their title can drive more normal human beings around the bend.
Take the case of a CFO. He has some (maybe even a lot) of influence on the company, but doesn't really run it. The CEO and the heads of the component businesses are the ones who really run the company and whose actions determine the financial results. And yet it is the CFO who is the public face of the company to the financial community - investors, lenders, markets and the like. Every quarter he has to forecast and deliver results - for which I would argue that he has only limited influence. The average tenure of a CFO has come down to between 4 and 5 years.
You may argue that he (it is rarely a she) is paid handsomely for all this, but trust me, after a point money s not the chief motivator. Despite the greed, many of this lot do this for the fame , prestige, power and the like. We must remember that they are also human beings like you and me. Sometimes you have to wonder if the pressure is worth it.
The issue of pressure is , of course, applicable at all levels in an organisation. The insane hours, the 24 hours work day demanded by globalisation, the physical exhaustion of travel all contribute to a different work spot than what it was even 20 years ago. In this forum , we have talked often of the social contract of organisations with society. There is also the familial contract and the personal contract which is under immense strain. Something for sociologists to ponder about.
Meanwhile a moment in mourning for Wauthier and words of condolence to the family would be appropriate.