McDonald's Corp said Chief Executive Don Thompson would retire at the end of February and be succeeded by Steve Easterbrook, the company's chief brand officer.
The announcement from the company, which has just finished one of its toughest years in decades, pushed its shares up 3 per cent in after-market trading on Wednesday.
"I don't think it was too much of a surprise. Maybe in the timing but not the action," Sanford Bernstein analyst Sara Senatore said. "This has been something that people have been talking about for a while."
McDonald's warned last week that business would be weak in the first half of 2015 and said it would cut its annual construction budget to the lowest in more than five years as it opens fewer restaurants in struggling markets.
Thompson, 51, joined the company in 1990 as an electrical engineer and went on to become president of McDonald's USA and global chief operating officer before taking over the top job in July 2012.
Easterbrook, who has been with the company since 1993, has also served as president of McDonald's Europe.