The 80-Year-Old CEO

As the issue of age intensifies in the US presidential campaign, more businesses look at their own leaders and ask: How old is too old?

It’s on the minds of many these days: At what age is someone too old to be a US president? And if we’re going to ask that question about the presidency, it’s hard to avoid asking it about another big leadership position: CEO. 

Although a majority of companies have mandatory retirement rules, recent examples suggest some firms are revisiting this age-old question. There are only a handful of top CEOs over the age of 80—in fact, a member of this tiny minority announced last week that he is stepping away from his role—and about 6% of leaders of the country’s largest publicly traded companies are over age 70. CEOs aged 75 and older lead numerous other privately owned firms. Yet several companies in the last year have waived mandatory retirement-age rules specifically to retain, or bring back, seasoned executives.

Experts say the stakeholders are increasingly less fixated on age and more concerned with questions such as, “Does the firm have someone lined up when the current CEO departs?” “Ultimately it is a succession issue,” says Alma Derricks, a senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Culture, Change, and Communications practice. 

Indeed, succession remains a big issue at all types of organizations. According to a survey from the National Association of Corporate Directors, 26% of companies haven’t established who would step in if the current boss departed suddenly for any reason. At private companies, it’s an even more widespread concern: 37% haven’t determined who would take over. Fewer than half of all companies, public or private, have even identified a pipeline of internal candidates who could succeed the current CEO. 

Older CEOs can be part of the succession process, although bringing up the subject with them can be difficult. Some of them, especially founders, refuse to engage on the topic.  

To be sure, legitimate questions can be raised about a leader’s age. Life expectancy in the United States is 73.2 years for men and 79.1 for women. It’s also no secret that as humans age, we tend to be more prone to physical infirmities. 

But there’s a difference between chronological age and functional age, says Rengin Firat, a neuroscientist and senior researcher at the Korn Ferry Institute. “They’re often lumped together,” Firat says. Having strong social connections, engaging in intellectually stimulating activities, and staying physically active all can help keep a person’s functional age from rising as fast as their chronological age

For their part, older CEOs can start asking questions of themselves: Am I able to adapt to change effectively? Am I learning new skills? Firat says success depends on having an open mindset, or a willingness to keep growing. “Being successful in any position is never static,” she says.


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