Has the ‘Young’ Ceo Arrived on the Business Landscape?

Rajesh Nair

The millennials will soon form the majority of the workforce around the world and this will not just affect the work culture but the very ethos and norms of everyday business as well. A lot of speculation has been made about the way the future will pan out. Questions like what will be the future like? and what intelligence will we need to create a smart future? are being widely discussed. Attempts are already on to automate menial and repetitive tasks and the trend is likely to increase. So, will it require a younger person at the leadership to understand all of it? Has the younger CEO finally arrived?

The younger generation of entrepreneurs is more attuned to technology and does not have the baggage of the ‘past’, says Rajesh Nair

We are already seeing a huge dip in the average age of company CEOs/CXOs. This is not just the trend in the new-age IT, e-commerce and technology segments but even in traditional sectors also. The formative experiences of many of today’s older senior executives were shaped by the forces that defined the decades in the late 1980s and 1990s. But the world ahead will be less benign, having more discontinuity and volatility, and with long-term charts no longer looking like smooth upward curves, long-held assumptions are giving way, and powerful business models becoming upended.

The mode of decision-making has also changed. We are sitting on stockpiles of information, analytics and super systematic algorithms which help us initiate every corporate action. Management works like ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahnemann have made us more aware of the way we think and decide. We are also now reading about loss aversion, confirmation bias and whole lot of psychologically hidden decision-making impediments. All these happen at a time when we are taking much more strategic decisions compared to the past decades.

How will behaviour of individual leadership impact our collective future? As a host of issues such as chronic diseases and climate change crop up with ageing demographics and globalisation, the need to address them becomes increasingly urgent. Some of the biggest challenges confronting humanity – chronic diseases, climate change, excessive household and public debt – stem from human behaviour such as poor diet and lack of exercise, unsustainable energy use and excessive consumption. A change for the better may occur as a result of the ‘influence’ of behavioural economics.

So there is a case for the younger CEO today. This is not a generalisation or an attempt to cast aspersion on the aged executives. Experiences, decision-making capabilities and soft skills are formed over the years and there can never be a belittling of the fact. But the younger generation is more attuned to technology, does not have the baggage of the ‘past’, and could start with a clean slate while taking decisions. They enjoy the advantage of a market population which is largely young, too, and thinks like them, and the changing demographic profile of the emerging world also favours their kind.

But I can’t feel upbeat without a tinge of caution. This is not a new trend. There have been younger leaders throughout history and that too, successful ones. But just as the young age is no guarantee for innovation, the older age is not a guarantee for experience.

We also need great listeners as leaders. We often consider articulation more important than listening. It needs to be mentally reinforced that our pitches and decisions become much more effective and refined when we listen to the stakeholders. It could be an insightful suggestion from a junior team member, an acerbic comment by a customer or a pointed query of an investor – all of them could help you build your repertoire of effective responses. So, does the young CEO have an advantage. I don’t think so!

What we must understand is that it is not a literally young CEO that we want but someone with her attributes! It will serve us well to remember that the vibrancy, attitude, changed mind-set and agility can also be found across all age and gender groups. Therefore, the quest for the right choice, the right culture mesh and right competencies will go beyond the age barrier!

(The author is Associate Partner – Markets, South India, EY)