For those who want to be the boss at a young age, the best advice is so simple that it is almost disappointing: become your own boss. Start a company, make yourself a top woman or man, and off you go. Because a shortcut there is no way to the top within the standard business community.
“The new boss of Unilever does not come straight from school,” says professor Janka Stoker, who has been researching leadership at the University of Groningen for years. “Experience is an important part of a leader’s backpack.”
A boss, Stoker says, is simply not a top football player. “Managing is not an innate talent, although sometimes some are better equipped for it than others. But there is a lot you can learn.”
She sums up: dealing with people, developing a vision, forming judgements, learning to make decisions. “That can all be developed.”
Leadership is not an innate talent. There is a lot you can learn
Janka Stoker, professor University of Groningen
As a result, many large companies have a traditional route to the top—not just for the very highest executive positions, but for other senior managerial positions as well. Employees are prepared for a leadership role through special management classes. Although such a class offers no guarantee of a top job: board chairmen are just as well attracted from outside.
An important aspect of these management classes is gaining experience in different functions and departments within the company. Working at a post abroad for a few years is also regularly part of the training programme.
“As a company you want to test someone in extremely difficult situations,” says headhunter Ralf Knegtmans, boss of the Amsterdam recruitment agency De Vroedt & Thierry. “That’s why a company like Heineken sends people to Nigeria, for example. There they have to deal with all kinds of things, such as corruption.”
That is a difference with a few decades ago, says Knegtmans. “In the past, people with the right studies were mainly hired for such classes: econometrics, an MBA. There they wanted the best and brightest and they were then completely pampered.” Now selections are made for such classes from more varied backgrounds, says Knegtmans, and there is no longer any question of pampering. “People are challenged, they have to prove themselves. As a company, it’s no use just pampering future managers. That’s not how the world works.”
A good boss, concludes Knegtmans, has a ‘cocktail of knowledge, experience, the right personal characteristics and motivations’. A manager’s previous education and positions are becoming less relevant than before, he believes. “Leaders must above all have the ability to learn and adapt. That is becoming increasingly important in this world.”
The young boss remains an anomaly. The Dutch business community is managed by people in their fifties, according to a database of NRC, which includes the directors and supervisory directors of the more than two hundred largest companies in the Netherlands. On average, the driver (m/f) is 53.7 years old (survey: April this year). In general, the female top executives are slightly younger than their male counterparts. Female drivers are on average 51.2 years old, the men 54.1 years.
Knegtmans saw the chief executive officers of the Netherlands, the CEOs, have become slightly younger in recent decades. “Then they are still in their fifties, you know. But they used to be in their sixties.” He sees rejuvenation especially in sectors such as ICT. “In the traditional corporate world, things are not going so fast.”
Data from the Female Board Index rather show a kind of stabilization. On this list, Tilburg professor Mijntje Lückerath keeps track of how many women work in the highest echelons of the Dutch business community. She also notes the age of directors and supervisory directors of listed companies in the Netherlands.
Last year, 22 new directors were appointed. Their average age: 50.8 years
More than ten years ago, according to her earlier publications, the then newly appointed directors (m/f) were on average 50 years old. That has hardly changed: last year 22 new directors were appointed. Their average age: 50.8 years. The average age of supervisory directors is much higher.
It is also plausible that more young bosses work in lower management layers, because you reach such a position earlier in your career. But no figures are kept centrally on this.
Anyone who is young and becomes the boss of something, can count on attention – perhaps partly for that reason. Headlines celebrating young leaders are numerous. A selection: “These thirty-somethings are already CEO”; „A 26-year-old CEO has been crowned the youngest self-made billionaire”; „5 Self-Made Young CEOs Whose Success Will Inspire You”.
There is a risk in that, says Professor Stoker: focusing too much on age. Age, in addition to gender or origin, is an important factor in which stereotypes and sometimes discrimination take place. Why should age be everything? When you say: young leaders are worse or better than older leaders, you are actually saying the same thing as: women are different from men, white different from black. You reduce a person to biographical characteristics that are irrelevant for effective leadership.”
The stereotypes about young and old work both ways. On the one hand, younger bosses are said to be more creative than older managers, more digitally skilled, more willing to take risks. But equally young is associated with incompetent, especially for leadership positions, and older with wise.
Research has been conducted into differences between younger and older managers. It finds “a correlation” between age and certain outcomes, says Stoker. Older CEOs would make companies more profitable. Young bosses, on the other hand, are more likely to venture into takeovers, for example, and thus be more innovative. “But those are not causal connections.”
Moreover, two aspects are often confused, says Stoker: age and employment. Bosses who have been with a company for a long time may be more likely to maintain the status quo and take less risk. And the newer someone is to the company, the sooner they will want to show that they can change something. But that depends on age. “A young CEO who has been with a company for five years may change a lot less than an older CEO who has just started.”
Such assumptions about age do have direct consequences in the workplace. Young bosses are judged differently than older bosses, according to research by UvA professor of work and organizational psychology Astrid Homan. She looked at how teams respond to relatively young bosses – executives who are younger than the team they manage. This showed that a younger boss with an engaged leadership style will be taken less seriously than an older boss with the same style.
Homan: “People like to be asked for input by their boss. But with younger bosses, such a question is more likely to be interpreted as inability, that ‘she’s asking because she doesn’t know’.”
It is more effective, Homan observed, if a young boss simply tells a colleague what to do. Although it is a precarious balance. “Because then a colleague can also think: come and tell me what I should do.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad of 25 September 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of September 25, 2021