The age of no age: It’s in the eye of the beholder

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The age of no age: It’s in the eye of the beholder Ethical BoardroomBy Fredy Hausammann – Managing Partner of Amrop Switzerland and Chair of the Amrop Global Nomination and Governance Committee

 

 

The western world views the span of working life through the lens of the industrial revolution: pain, suffering and being steadily worn out. And so the ideal of early retirement took root. But this needs to change, both for the health of business leadership and to keep pace with demographic shifts. 

If some senior executives view early retirement as a badge of success (a round of golf beats a board meeting), many are still energised at 60. Indeed, their health and drive translate into a hunger and ambition seldom seen in this age group. Yet many companies still take a clichéd attitude: the over-60s are unfit for purpose physically, emotionally and motivationally. This overlooks rising life expectancy and the fitness and health of this age group. It disregards the demographic reality. 

C-level implications

We once filled operational executive roles up to the 45 to 50 age range. The upper end of that bracket has now shifted to the mid-50s. And here the discrimination begins. Many in their late 50s want a final executive role, but hiring organisations resist: ‘We already have lots of people in this age bracket’; ‘We should have somebody younger’; ‘Does she still have the energy and motivation?’.

Why should we view a 57-year-old differently from a 50-year-old? In any case, and particularly in the age of Covid, planning beyond a five-year horizon is no longer possible.

Meet our new board member, she’s 62 years young

All over the world, we see energy being put into professionalising boards. But here is a new challenge; typically, the board was once a retirement home for males over 65, paying lip service for 10 years. Perhaps this is why the search for non-executive board roles is keenest for people aged between 45 and 60. But why can’t a 65-year-old serve 10 years in the role? Should there even be an age limit? For some, turning 70 certainly marks the right end point. For others it’s all about the duration of the assignment and their mental and physical fitness.

Thirsty organisations are ignoring a deep talent pool

I believe it’s time to review the way we look at age for leadership roles. To think harder about how long anyone can and should perform, and plan in terms of limiting the assignment span – being more flexible on age. 

Society still has a traditional, outdated view of work and age. The reality of demographic change, the expansion of the older generation relative to the younger, is not yet recognised. We will very soon need older professionals to fill all our positions. Yet companies are neglecting this talent pool; neither building the best possible human capital, nor deploying its brain power.

The two most misjudged and neglected age groups are from 55 to 60 years old for operational roles, and from 63 years old for board roles. We cannot let this continue, especially once the demographic reality hits.

The age of no age: It’s in the eye of the beholder Ethical Boardroom

The Iron (Supplements) Age is upon us

Rightly, there is focus on diversity at senior levels, particularly gender. But diversity of age and background is equally important. Every week, I see discrimination against candidates aged between 55 and 60; they fail to make shortlists. I cannot understand why a 50-year-old is preferred over a peer aged 55, 56 or 57. If some firms oblige you to retire at 62, many others encourage you to work up to 65. Most candidates in these age brackets are as fit as people five to 10 years younger.

Success and succession 

Succession planning is one of the biggest problems facing the firms I work with. Much of their younger talent is not yet ready for senior leadership, and they lack senior leaders. It’s ironic: if organisations paid greater attention to the older talent pool, the problem would evaporate. One of my clients recently filled a chief experience officer (CXO) role with a 56-year-old amid a field of applicants in their late 40s. He is not a rival for the younger executives around him, but a mentor who can build up successors.

The age of no age: It’s in the eye of the beholder Ethical Boardroom

Burnout may burn out with time 

Employers worry: does s/he have the motivation and drive for another seven or eight years?’. Perhaps the drivers for a 57-year-old differ from a 47-year-old in terms of career, money and general ambition. But that doesn’t impact overall motivational or energy levels. They are simply in a different life phase. We need to understand individual motivational drivers, never assuming that older people are less motivated. Those taking on senior roles are, by definition, ready for the challenge. Usually, they have less family responsibility and financial pressure and are less prone to burnout.

“Society still has a traditional, outdated view of work and age. The reality of demographic change, the expansion of the older generation relative to the younger, is not yet recognised.”


Companies are also shy of adding another mature executive in case they all retire at once. But different people want to retire at different moments. Again, these blanket assumptions are unhelpful.

Time for some old age disruption

One concern of chairs is that a 63-year-old CEO or CFO will struggle to keep up with the tech. Again, this assumes that the post -60s are digital dinosaurs or unwilling or unable to invest in developing. The logic is flawed. I think a key leadership trait is the ability to self-reflect and learn. Age matters little in this regard, as the ability comes from a person’s personality, more than anything else. 

Management Messages

1. In key senior roles we need a different view of age, work and tenure

2. Executives aged between 55 and 60, and board members aged between 60 and 65, are twin spheres, requiring a more agile view 

3. Demographic shifts and the war for talent will force us to embrace the older age brackets in any case. Why not now?

4. An open door to a more mature talent pool presents a deep well of brainpower and experience – the best human capital.

5. The executive diversity drive must include age diversity

6. Positioning a mature executive not as a rival for the younger entourage, but as a mentor, rewards firms with seasoned leaders who are willing and able to build successors

7. It is critical to understand individual motivational drivers; never assume that drive drops with age. Many seniors have less family responsibility and financial pressure, and are less prone to burnout

8. We must correct the bias that a 60- or 65 year-old cannot or will not keep up to date technically: self-reflection and learnings are key, related to personality, not age

 

About The Author:

Fredy joined Amrop in 1998. In addition to his local role as Managing Partner of Amrop in Switzerland, he has served as a member of Amrop’s Global Board and Vice Chair for the EMEA region. Today he is Chair of the Amrop Global Nomination and Governance Committee. Fredy has held management positions in corporate and investment banking as well as trading and sales credit risk management with UBS in Zurich, London and New York. Fredy specialises in financial services and board searches and led the Financial Services Practice of Amrop between 2003 and 2009. He is the author of Personal Governance and handles management coaching and corporate governance advisory assignments. Fredy holds a degree in economics and business administration and a masters in management coaching.