Who’s the boss? It’s sometimes hard to tell when a chief executive leaves office without leaving the company.

The issue of ambiguous leadership has become increasingly thorny as more CEOs stay on their employer’s payroll as executive chairman—a well-compensated, full-time position with management and board duties.

The number of executive chairmen of Fortune 500 companies who used to be CEOs there has surged to 35 this year from just 17 in 2008, according to an analysis for The Wall Street Journal by recruiters Egon Zehnder International.

“Boards like having the former CEO stay as executive chairman in order to provide insights and continuity during this period of economic uncertainty,” said Karena Strella, the U.S. co-head for Egon Zehnder.

The jump also reflects boards’ desire to reduce a new leader’s crushing workload and aging chiefs’ reluctance to let go.

Exiting CEOs have become executive chairmen or announced such plans at nine U.S. businesses so far this year, including Apple Inc.’s Steve Jobs, Google Inc.’s Eric Schmidt andOccidental Petroleum Corp.’s Ray Irani. Most have yet to reveal end dates for their new position.

Ray Lane, the newly named executive chairman of Hewlett-Packard Co., must find ways to share power with CEO Meg Whitman, chosen last week after the technology giant fired her predecessor, Leo Apotheker.

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