The Age Of Leadership Fitness: Playing For The First Team

By Kathleen Saxton, Founder and CEO of The Lighthouse Company and co-producer of Advertising Week Europe

 
 

Over the past few years the advertising and media fraternity has taken great strides to start correcting many of the industry’s injustices. The ethnicity agenda is continually being challenged, while the creation of the Cannes Glass Lions earlier this year compliments the work carried out by organisations such as WACL to target gender inequality.

 
 

But what about age? It’s long been said that this is a young person’s game and the IPA’s Agency Census highlights only 20% of agency personnel to be aged over forty. Do we collectively need to be doing do more to help today’s leadership elite remain in the premier league?

 
 

The needs of today are stretching our leaders

 
 

There is a clear disconnect on expected industry tenure when it comes to the views of our current leaders and the reality presented in industry audits such as those conducted by the IPA. Of the 500 C suite leaders questioned in our annual New World Talent Survey, 70% plan to be in their current position throughout their 50s and into their 60s.

 
 

When the Lighthouse represents today’s top flight we’re no longer purely looking for those with years of experience accumulated in position, but rather those that have a current hybrid skill set that can be flexed across the board.

 
 

So if it’s our breadth of experience and skills that is most in demand, why do our industry headlines tend to be dominated by the younger entrepreneurial talent?

 
 

Stay in shape or risk being relegated

 
 

As we reach our peak, our personal responsibilities mean that we might be less willing to take the risks that are often associated with being at the forefront of industry change.

 
 

Yet we only need to look to the start-ups in industries such as bio-tech and business software where the founder’s age, and more importantly the experience that comes with it, can provide a true competitive advantage. Research recently released by analysts at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business shows that the average company founder is 38, with a master’s degree and 16 years of work experience. Proving that with the right idea, anyone can make a success of it, the Kauffman Foundations also highlights that high-growth start-ups are almost twice as likely to be launched by people over 55 as those in their twenties.

 
 

Granted, not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, but ultimately, age should not be a barrier to staying at the top of our game. As senior leaders, we cannot afford to be blasé about any right to remain in position; if we don’t stay involved, we don’t deserve to stay in play.

 
 

Time for a substitution?

 
 

All this said, perhaps you have a game plan with a different goal in mind. Perhaps you’re with the 44% of leaders that the Lighthouse surveyed who believe that they will end up taking up a non-executive or chairman style role after leaving the industry. The stark reality is that there are not enough of these to go round. Conversely, your plans may resemble half of those that we spoke to who have made no plans for life outside of the media and advertising industry at all.

 
 

Alain de Botton explains that satisfaction at work is largely dependent on your expectations. While “the working-class view of work” might see the point of the nine-to-five as being primarily financial, the “middle-class view” sees work as essential to self-fulfilment. Our best leaders have spent years improving their skills, continually learning and challenging the status quo in roles that provide not only financial recompense but a great deal of personal satisfaction. I for one don’t believe that age alone should, or does, influence this.

 
 

The final whistle

 
 

So if the desire remains, how does one remain in the premier league? We believe there are five key traits that are critical to staying match fit in today’s leadership world:

 
 

i. Curiosity – simply put, to stay relevant we have to stay intrigued.

 

ii. Keep learning – as long as hybrid skills are in demand, breadth can give the upper-hand.

 

iii. Agility – in a world of test and learn, be ready to change course when appropriate.

 

iv. Be self-aware – you may be an industry star, but don’t be too self-involved that you miss others’ opinions and opportunities.

 

v. Stay fit – as our understanding of neuroscience grows, make sure that you look after both your mental and physical wellbeing to achieve peak performance.

 
 

Organisations will forever be making a trade-off between youthful hunger and mature wisdom. I truly believe that for those possessing the latter and wanting to remain in play, the responsibility lies first and foremost with the individual to develop and acquire whatever it is they need to stay at the top in an ever-growing leadership talent pool.

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