7 Boomerang CEOs Who Left Their Companies Only to Return Years (or Days) Later

Studies have shown that rehiring a former CEO may not always be in a company’s best interest. But there are exceptions.

Boomerang CEOs
From left to right: Katrina Lake, Sergio Ermotti, Steve Huffman, Bob Iger, Kevin Plank, Sam Altman, Jack Dorsey. Getty Images/Observer

Earlier this month, Under Armour brought back Kevin Plank, the athletic wear brand’s founder and former CEO, as chief executive again. Plank is the latest addition to a short, but notable, list of “boomerang CEOs,” a term describing top executives who are fired by or voluntarily leave their companies only to return after a period of absence. Most often, boomerang CEOs are reinstated to assist in times of turbulence or transition for a company. The most well-known examples include Starbucks’ Howard Schultz and Dell Technologies’ Michael Dell, who returned to their respective CEO roles during the 2008 Financial Crisis. Michael Bloomberg served as CEO of Bloomberg L.P. from its founding in 1981 through 2001 before leaving to serve three terms as New York City mayor. After his terms ended, he returned to Bloomberg in 2014. 

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Studies have shown that rehiring a former CEO may not always be in a company’s best interest. A research paper featured in the MIT Sloan Management Review in 2020 found that “boomerang CEOs perform significantly worse than other CEOs, and that this effect is especially strong for firms in dynamic industries and when the boomerang CEO is a founder.” 

“Boomerang CEOs may be either unable or unwilling to make necessary strategic changes when they return to lead the companies they founded,” the authors concluded. “The unexpected outcome is that they often end up hurting the company instead of helping it.”

Travis Howell, an assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, told Observer that boomerang CEOs are preferred in some scenarios because they’re a “known quantity” that stakeholders already trust. However, former CEOs also pose the risk of applying antiquated strategies to ever-changing business landscapes. “If you bring someone back from several years prior, they were probably the right person for that time before, but they might not be the right person for this time. The industry is changing constantly. It can be an issue,” he said. 

While an unconventional, and sometimes costly, approach to corporate management, boomerang CEOs are not completely uncommon. Here’s a list of the most notable boomerang CEOs over the years:

Under Armour’s Kevin Plank

Kevin Plank, a former player on the University of Maryland football team, founded Under Armour in 1996 after he graduated from college. He served as the company’s CEO for more than 20 years until he voluntarily resigned in 2019 but remained as the company’s executive chair and brand chief. 

Plank was succeeded by former Under Armour COO Patrik Frisk. Frisk lasted only two years and was replaced by Stephanie Linnartz, a former executive at Marriott, in early 2023. Plank now has returned as both president and CEO. However, as part of the appointment, Plank has had to give up his chair seat to board member Mohamed El-Erian. Planks remains a director on the board. 

OpenAI’s Sam Altman

On Nov. 17, 2023, OpenAI’s board of directors abruptly fired the company’s co-founder and CEO Sam Altman, citing his lack of candor with the company as one of the reasons for his removal. In response, over 500 OpenAI employees threatened to quit if Altman was not reinstated. Then, on Nov. 21, 2023, the A.I. company restored Altman as the chief executive and announced the creation of a new board of directors. 

Disney’s Bob Iger

The Walt Disney Company (DIS)’s star CEO Bob Iger announced in 2020 he would retire after 15 years at the helm. Iger was succeeded by Bob Chapek and assumed a new role of executive chairman to oversee the transition. The board then extended Iger’s term as chairman to the end of 2021 before he was hired back as CEO in 2022 to set “a strategic direction for renewed growth” amidst the challenges faced by the entertainment conglomerate during the pandemic. In 2023, Disney’s board voted to stretch out Iger’s contract to the end of 2026. 

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey

Jack Dorsey served as CEO of Twitter from 2006 to 2008, when he was pushed out amid concerns about his ability to manage the company’s rapid expansion. Dorsey was replaced by his co-founder Evan Williams but remained as chairman of the board. 

Dorsey returned to Twitter in 2015 as CEO in an attempt to reinvigorate the company. At the time, he was also serving as CEO of the mobile payment company Square. He left Twitter again in 2021 to explore other projects and was replaced by Parag Agrawal, who was fired upon Elon Musk’s acquisition of the company in late 2022. Earlier that year, Dorsey stepped down from Twitter’s board of directors. 

Reddit’s Steve Huffman

Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman served as CEO of the online discussion forum from 2005 to 2009. He was ousted in 2009 when Condé Nast, Reddit’s then-parent company, installed a new leadership team. Reddit rehired Huffman as CEO following the resignation of Ellen Pao in 2015. He went on to guide various initiatives, including redesigning the platform to focus on community engagement and monetization strategies. Reddit went public in February. 

UBS’s Sergio Ermotti

Sergio Ermotti, a former Merrill Lynch banker, was appointed CEO of UBS in 2011 tasked to turn around the Swiss bank in the aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis. He stepped down in 2020 and returned in April 2023, replacing Ralph Hamers, to execute UBS’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Credit Suisse. “With his unique experience, I am very confident that Sergio will deliver the successful integration that is so essential for both banks’ clients, employees and investors, and for Switzerland,” UBS Chairman Colm Kelleher said at the time.

Stitch Fix’s Katrina Lake

Katrina Lake founded Stitch Fix in 2010 and served as CEO of the online personal styling service until 2021 when she stepped back to the executive chair role. Under Lake’s leadership, StitchFix went public in 2017. Lake temporarily returned to lead the company again in January 2023 and eventually stepped down five months later. She was succeeded by Matt Baer, a former digital executive at Macy’s.

7 Boomerang CEOs Who Left Their Companies Only to Return Years (or Days) Later