There is a common but often privately held expectation around digital change and leadership – that it is somehow the preserve of the relatively young. The impression given is that you have to be a millennial (born after 1990) or you have to be a ‘digital native’ – raised as a child of the internet era, to really hack it. Surely you must at least be under 40 – otherwise you just don’t “get it” or you can’t change your outlook, or you lack the necessary energy and risk taking attitude. “Coast off into the chairman role or to the non-exec circuit and let the bright young things get on with it Granddad!”
By Mueller / MSC, CC BY 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30975746
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If this were true, in many traditional industries, the large companies that are incumbents would then be faced with a stark choice. Either give up and face a slow inevitable demise as a result of digital disruption, or appoint a millennial CEO. Often, neither is an attractive proposition for boards of directors, who are trusted with large amounts of relatively conservative investor’s money and it is in fact a false dilemma for two reasons.
Firstly – the big battles in digital change take place over a decade or more not a year, so there is no need to make a rash hiring move or to believe that your super-tanker organisation lacks the time and room to make a big change manoeuvre. Think about Walmart vs Amazon in e-commerce. That battle has been developing for more like 20 years than two and is not yet over. Or consider Google, Tesla and Uber vs. the big auto companies – the battle for the autonomous car future isn’t likely to be ‘done and dusted’ in the next 2 years is it?
Secondly we need to look at some of the most aggressive protagonists for digital revolution who are currently at the helm of traditional companies. Amongst them are some CEOs who, to put it politely, are very firmly in the baby boomer cohort. Three are at companies that contributed to our book.
Francisco González Rodríguez, executive chairman at the large Spanish and international bank BBVA, is widely regarded as one of the most digitally progressive international banking CEOs. He’s been working on digitalising the bank for a number of years. He hires and promotes multiple digital leaders to senior positions in the organisation. Under his leadership, digital guys are more likely to make accelerated career progress than the branch guys. Rodríguez acquired a US mobile bank and has empowered a data science company inside the group. Señor Rodríguez is 72.
Maurice Levy leads Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s largest advertising agencies. The marketing industry has been digitalizing very deeply in recent years and he has been making sure Publicis keeps up – for example by building data analytics capabilities and acquiring Sapient. When we interviewed him, Levy shared that he was once a Fortran programmer early in his career. Coders never unlearn the power and opportunity of tech, no matter how senior they become. Monsieur Levy is 74. His closest direct competitor, Sir Martin Sorrell at the advertising company WPP is also digitalizing that firm very quickly. Mr. Sorrell is 71.
Jeffrey Immelt is driving a colossal change at GE, centering its business strategy around the “Industrial Internet”. He hired Bill Ruh, a seasoned technology leader from Silicon Valley (himself 54) and made a huge investment bet to build Google-class software and analytics capabilities. Immelt positioned a corporate educator to rewire the mind-set of the company – from the executive leadership team downwards – by teaching them silicon valley thinking patterns. Mr. Immelt is 60.
Age is not an impediment to introducing radical digital change to a firm. Nor is it a valid excuse for failing to do so. CEO’s should remind themselves that lifelong learning is a modern reality for everyone – not just their staff. They should look back at other the big unknown challenges they have faced and conquered as leaders – such as navigating the financial crisis. Then then they should remind themselves that digital tech is not bigger than they are or an insurmountable obstacle. Here’s how Jeffrey Immelt articulated his response to the digital business challenge, in an interview last October:
“If I said, “Look, we’re not good enough .. Thomas Edison would kill me. He would come out of his grave and go, “Ohhhh! You die today. So we made the decision, why not us? Why not try? If it’s not going to be us, it’s going to be somebody else, so we’d better get out and do it! “
The bottom line is this: age is an excuse used only by those who are trying to avoid an important leadership challenge. If you are capable enough to be in the CEO seat, you are never ‘too old’ to take digital to the core.
You can read about some of these leaders and others in our book Digital to the Core, which is available in print, e-book and audio book formats at the usual outlets.
Postscript – full disclosure – the author of this piece is 54, and he gets away with claiming to be Gen X.. on a good day.
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