The big debate: does CEO age really matter?

Is leadership an inherent skill that people are born with or are age and experience still the most effective indicators of future success at the helm of a company? Two experts weigh in

Traditional wisdom might have suggested that years of management experience and a steady climb up the corporate ladder are prerequisites for effective leadership. But the emergence of a younger cohort of fresh-faced CEOs has prompted the delicate question: does age really matter?

For the first time in years, the average age of a chief executive is falling. Last year, it dropped from 56 to 53, according to consultancy Korn Ferry – a small but significant change given there has been very little movement on this in previous years. 

At the same time, a growing number of leaders are being appointed to the top job without prior CEO experience. Research by management consulting firm Russell Reynolds found that, of the many new CEOs in the FTSE 100 in 2023, 88% were first-timers; a trend that signals the changing face of leadership where diversity of thought and experience are valued above years spent in the job. 

But while age may just be a number – it still carries some weight. The fact that many of the leaders at the world’s most established companies have at least a few decades of experience under their belt suggests that the wealth of knowledge gained from navigating challenges, making tough decisions, and overcoming obstacles, is still important. Apart from the odd exception, it is still rare for those in their 20s and early 30s to be appointed CEO unless they have created the business as a founder or inherited it from a family member. 

As companies seek insurance against volatile and uncertain times, they must decide: is good leadership a skill people are naturally more inclined to – or is experience still the most effective indicator of future success? 

Age does not matter, attitude does 

Liz Sebag-Montefiore 
Co-founder and director at HR consultancy 10Eighty 

Age should not matter but there is still age discrimination, stereotyping, unconscious bias and cultural expectations to contend with. There is a perception that a more established leader brings experience and valuable skills to the table, whereas a younger chief executive may be more inclined to innovation and collaboration. But this way of thinking is reductive. 

It is easy to think that experience is what matters, but not if that means someone set in their ways, hidebound by bias and susceptible to dangerous cultural stereotypes. An effective CEO does not need to have decades of experience today, but they do need to be adaptable, agile and decisive in any given situation. 

At the same time, we know leaders in their 60s and 70s who are vigorous, open-minded, curious, tech-savvy, energetic, enthusiastic and, most importantly, keen to learn. 

It doesn’t matter if the CEO is 36 or 66 so long as they have the right mindset and work ethic

At the end of the day, age is just a number – and today’s workforce is changing. We live longer and we work longer, be that by choice or through need. Retirement at 60 or 65 is no longer the norm. We are becoming used to a multi-generational workplace and must embrace that if we want businesses to succeed. We learn from each other and a team made up of people of all ages can be a diverse and inspiring setup that reflects our customer base and the world around us.

In the business world, continuous reinvention is the norm and a CEO needs to deliver for stakeholders in the face of change and disruption. To that end, it doesn’t really matter if the CEO is 36 or 66 so long as they have the right mindset and work ethic to meet the challenges they encounter and act decisively, sustainably and inventively.

Young CEOs lack the necessary experience to lead effectively

Ben Stocken 
Chief executive at leadership consultancy West Peak 

Being a twenty-something CEO means you’ve got to gain two decades of business experience in next to no time. Like creating a decent red wine, this takes time and can’t be rushed. It’s probably why most successful CEOs are found from the middle ground, where they are considered ‘just right’.

A paper in The Harvard Business Review found that the average age of a successful startup founder is 45, backing up this ‘middle ground’ theory. 

Communicating a vision for investors, clients and employees to buy into is arguably the most important skill a CEO needs. Having more experience of working life helps shape that ability. Seasoned CEOs may be more likely to offer a long-term, risk-averse strategy. In contrast, their younger peers may be more inclined to take risks and pursue a disruptive approach in search of innovation. 

A CEO with battle scars from failures is more likely to be able to adapt to changing circumstances

Younger CEOs may bring fresh perspectives, energy, and a willingness to challenge traditional ways of thinking, but they often lack the experience necessary to lead effectively.

The role of a CEO demands a vast array of skills, from strategic decision-making and risk management to stakeholder management and crisis leadership. Younger leaders may struggle to anticipate potential risks or respond effectively to unforeseen challenges. This inexperience could lead to costly mistakes, missed opportunities, or poor judgement calls. They may also find it challenging to navigate the complexities of organisational politics, manage diverse stakeholder interests, and maintain a steady hand during turbulent times. 

A CEO with battle scars earned during failures and setbacks is more likely to be able to anticipate potential pitfalls, mitigate risks, and adapt to changing circumstances than their less experienced counterparts. They are also more likely to have developed a professional network that can open doors to valuable resources, strategic partnerships, and insightful industry connections.

This wealth of connections and the ability to tap into a bank of ‘what not to do’ shortcuts can be a significant competitive edge, especially in highly dynamic or competitive industries.