The Age of Talent: How to Set Aside Performance Bias and Harness the Power of Generational Diversity

By: Debra Schwartzfarb

As e-commerce enters its second decade of maturity, a new generation of executives is entering the C-suite. Some of these professionals are self-made, having launched successful companies that have made them highly visible 20-and-30-something CEOs. Others, prized for their digital fluency and new ways of thinking, are rising through the ranks in the fast track to the top.

Conversations around the early success of these rising stars increasingly position younger generations as the stewards of the future and older generations as legacy leaders of the past. In this environment a misconception has taken hold: that age and ability are somehow linked.

This thinking is unfounded. In terms of ability, a professional’s capacity for performance, innovation and new skill development has much more to do with the individual than the number of years they’ve been in the workforce. (If you’re struggling with this concept, consider a 30-year-old heavy smoker and a 60-year-old triathlete. Now weigh their ability to run a marathon.)

Ability should be assessed on a basis separate from age. But that’s not to say age doesn’t matter. There are factors to consider that set generations apart. By seeking to understand these differences, companies can build more effective leadership teams that leverage the strengths and diverse viewpoints a well-balanced workforce can bring.

So, when does age matter? Consider the following:

Runway

Companies seeking to hire tomorrow’s leaders increasingly cite “runway” as a top priority — i.e., they want candidates with a sufficiently long stretch of career still ahead of them. There’s an issue with that, however. The pool of candidates with more than 20 years of career left is increasingly comprised of millennials, a generation often maligned for its lack of employer loyalty. In this context, companies need to clarify what they really need when they say “runway.” If the answer is tenure-oriented, then candidates in later stages of their careers might be better suited to the task of sticking around.

Leadership

Unlike skills, experience can’t be taught. It‘s gained over the course of a career. The longer the career, the more robust an executive’s collective successes, failures and learnings will be. A tenured leader adds qualities such as wisdom, judgement, institutional knowledge and real-world context to a leadership team, and without it many younger companies struggle to scale beyond a certain size. A versatile leadership team blends rising stars with seasoned veterans who have “done it before” and can help to steady the ship through internal and external turbulence as companies grow and evolve.

Generosity

Younger executives with accelerated careers tend to be driven, dedicated and have something to prove. While energized and hard working, these professionals are less likely to dedicate time to developing and mentoring others. Mature executives may be more generous with their time, eager to impart wisdom gained over a successful career and cede recognition to others. A healthy leadership team blends drivers and developers in different stages of the professional lifecycle where cross-generational mentoring can occur.

Representation

As with other forms of diversity, building a generationally diverse workforce provides critical representation for the population of customers a company serves. Examples abound of missteps where companies fail to connect (or worse) with consumers because their internal workforce doesn’t reflect their external audience. The largest adult population in the U.S. is comprised of baby boomers (born between 1946–1964), though millennials (born between 1981–1996) are predicted to take the lead in 2019. A workforce that under-represents any key adult population is missing out on critical insights that only balanced representation can provide.

Perspective

Fast tracking next-gen talent to the C-suite can be highly effective for companies seeking new ways of thinking about products and services. Younger talent, less familiar with the way things have “always been done” brings a fresh perspective suited to challenging long-held assumptions and identifying innovation barriers.

On the flip side, seasoned executives with a repository of career successes and failures understand why things are the way they are. This context can help companies “see around the corner” and take calculated risks that sidestep foreseeable setbacks.

Takeaways

Whether hiring or promoting, companies should ask candidates the following:

  • Which skills and experiences are needed for this role, age aside?
  • Who is included in our consideration set, and who has been excluded? And for those excluded, for what reason?

Setting aside unconscious and conscious assumptions linking age and ability helps to ensure companies a.) get the best talent for the role and b.) build well-rounded executive teams poised to tackle short- and long-term organizational needs.

Debra Schwartzfarb is a vice president at Kirk Palmer and Associates, an executive search firm with a focus on senior-level roles in retail, direct-to-consumer and wholesale. Reach Debra at debra@kirkpalmer.com.

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