I’ve noticed something about my generation of established leaders: We like control, and we don’t want to let go of it.
USA Today ran a cover article last April about this reality. A growing number of baby boomer and builder generation leaders who are at retirement age are choosing to stay in the game. And why shouldn’t they? Isn’t 75 the new 65? People are living longer and healthier lives today. These late-age boomers are so invested in their positions that some are even fighting to hold on to them.
Two large organizations, the New Orleans Saints football team and Viacom/CBS, have fought to remove their senior leaders. Early in 2015, Tom Benson, the 89-year-old owner of the New Orleans Saints football and Pelicans basketball teams, successfully won a competency lawsuit. The same thing happened later in 2015 to Sumner Redstone, chairman of both Viacom and CBS. The question I wrestle with is: Why are senior leaders holding on so hard to their positions, while their organizations are fighting so hard to remove them?
In over the last decade, the number of CEOs aged 65 to 69 almost doubled in the U.S., and the number aged 70 to 74 increased by 33 percent. According to management consulting firm Korn Ferry, over the last decade, the average age of a Fortune 500 CEO rose from 56 to 58. This pattern is showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is that we seasoned veterans often don’t want to stop leading our organizations.
Lots of Gray and Green
The two largest generations in America today are the baby boomers and the millennials, the oldest and the youngest populations in the workforce. That’s a lot of gray (seasoned veterans) and a lot of green (new and fresh staff). To me, the greatest dilemma is not merely that people are working longer in their careers; it’s that we are not shifting the source of our fulfillment. We remain in the same positions at the top, monopolizing the same tasks we have for years.
We need to alter how the work is done. If you’re 40 to 45 years old, this is the perfect time to make this shift. If you’re 60 to 65 years old, it’s a necessity. Younger team members are longing to have a say in major decisions, to put their fingerprints on big projects and to help determine where the organization goes.
But, alas, we don’t want to let go. For many of us, it’s tied to our identity.
The Shift Does Not Mean Quitting
Transfer the source of your satisfaction from doing the job yourself to mentoring younger team members. I began to do this in the 1990s as I entered the stage of mid-life myself. I loved my work and drew much fulfillment from it. But I could tell I was going to lose my 20-somethings if I continued to focus on my own skill set. So, I shifted where I got my fulfillment by empowering other young leaders.
I began to see that my work could be equally satisfying – if not more so – if I changed the scorecard. It wasn’t about my personal performance. It was about preparing others. It’s a tough but needed shift. So far, baby boomers are not doing it so well, on the whole.
I see this problem in dozens of other countries. Veteran leaders refuse to let go of their power and let younger “pups” step in and learn to lead. As a result:
- The organization grows gray and often loses touch with the pulse of its culture.
- The young potential leaders find somewhere else to invest their talent.
Making the Shift
Here are four steps I had to take to make this fulfillment shift:
- Find pleasure in spotting talent and passion, and then reward it. Fan into flame any sightings of potential, and find a place for those people to invest it. Let go of the phrase “the buck stops here,” and embrace the phrase “success without a successor is a failure.” Responsibility can be shared.
- Begin to shift how you spend your time. Choose to invest in rising leaders rather than checking off your to-do list.
- Ask yourself, “Who am I training to take my place?” Make a list of rising leaders who you think might one day be competent enough to lead.
- Stop keeping score of how something is done, and focus on results. Let young team members do the task their own way, as long as it bears fruit. Stop worrying about your recognition, and begin pondering your legacy. The world grows bigger when it’s not about you.
I plan on staying involved at Growing Leaders until I can no longer contribute to our cause. But long before then, I plan to continue turning over project reins to young and energetic staff who love the same cause I do. Now, I love empowering and cheering on the next generation of leaders at our organization. I am having the time of my life “developing” more than “doing.”
Here’s my challenge to you: As you age, please adjust.