Author: Chip Conley
I recently read an Outside magazine article dedicated to the question, “What age is someone most likely to achieve their peak performance?” This got me wondering about the prime age for leadership. Last week, someone asked me at what time in my life I made my best decisions: in my mid-20s as an ambitious start-up boutique hotelier, or in my mid-50s as a seasoned leader at Airbnb? That got me pondering.
First off, let me state the obvious. There is no “perfect” age to be the most effective leader. I can’t pinpoint the age at which one will perform best in any given role any more than I can claim to know whether it’s better to have a younger person or an older person run any given company. But here’s one thing I do know for certain: as power in our society continues to shift younger, leaders with a little aging patina have so much more to offer. Especially now.
A number of years ago, quite by accident, I stumbled upon a job in the tech industry. I was 52 and had recently sold the company I’d founded and run for 24 years when the three Millennial co-founders of Airbnb asked me to help them turn their fast growing tech start-up into a global hospitality brand, while serving as in-house mentor to the company’s young and savvy CEO Brian Chesky. Given my experience as a boutique hotel entrepreneur, I’d accumulated some industry knowledge, but by the end of my first week I realized that the brave, new home-sharing world didn’t need most of my old-school, bricks and mortar hotel insights. Eventually I came to realize that while Airbnb ostensibly brought me in for my industry knowledge, my true value to the company was my well-earned wisdom.
I’m not the first person to equate age with wisdom, or wisdom with leadership ability. But in fact, studies have not found a direct correlation between any of those things. However, what researchers have discovered is that leaders can cultivate a skill for gathering wisdom as they age.
So, what is wisdom? I would suggest it’s the ability to arrive at good judgment with just the right alchemy of confidence and doubt. That might sound nebulous, but “good judgment,” at its core, is about pattern recognition. And one could argue that the older you are, the richer the data set of experiences you can draw upon to recognize patterns. So why, for some older leaders, does experience bring baggage, not insight? Warren Bennis, one of the world’s wisest management theorists, suggested that the most effective leaders are those who have an extraordinary appetite for new information. In other words, great leaders are great learners at any age.
During my time at Airbnb, I started to recognize that a new kind of older leader was emerging in the workplace. Not the elder of the past who was regarded with reverence. No, what is striking about the modern elder is his or her relevance: the ability to use timeless wisdom to address modern day problems. It’s time businesses began to value wisdom as much as they do disruption, especially in the tech sector. And, yes, I think it’s time we reclaimed the word “elder” — with a modern twist. In a world that is changing at increasing speed, a modern elder’s curiosity is a life-affirming elixir for them and those around them.
The beginner’s mind, empathy and holistic thinking that characterize such modern elders are the hallmarks of an effective leader of any age. At Airbnb, I was surrounded by smart, digital leaders with “metric-driven” business roadmaps and accountability charts. But most of them had been thrust into a managerial role before being offered any formal leadership training. I don’t care if you’re in the B2B, B2C, C2C, or A2Z world, all business is fundamentally H2H (Human to Human). While my “fact knowledge” — like how many rooms a maid cleans in an 8-hour shift — might not be all that relevant at Airbnb, my “process knowledge” — like how to get things done by understanding people’s underlying motivations — was very valuable at a company where most of the leaders didn’t have deep organizational experience.
DQ (digital intelligence) is the prized skill in most companies today. And, yet, we expect these young executives to miraculously embody the EQ (emotional intelligence) that older workers have had twice as much time to learn. Over time, young leaders throughout the company sought me out for private mentoring sessions, and it turned out that we were often mentoring each other, me trading some EQ for some of their DQ. Both sides of these relationships found the arrangement enriching, and a trust grew.
Modern elders can play many roles, but their unique value is in coaxing the genius out of a younger leader. Because of their vast experience, they are able to see things in younger leaders that they have already overcome themselves, as well as the characteristics and challenges that make each young person unique. In that way, they are like sculptors who chip away at the rock to find the beauty inside — whether that’s the unique gifts of a young CEO or the value proposition of a company.
Darrell Worthy, who led a group of University of Texas psychologists in a series of experiments on wisdom, found that while younger adults tend to make faster choices that lead to more immediate rewards, older adults are generally more adept at making strategic choices that take the future into account. This reinforces the stereotype that younger leaders may be more suitable for organizations that need to move quickly, untethered by tradition or caution, (hence Mark Zuckerberg’s famous quote: “Move fast and break things.”) while older leaders are better suited for stability and optimization.
But what if this is actually a false choice? What if great leadership isn’t a question of youth vs experience, digital intelligence vs emotional intelligence, or wisdom vs ambition, but rather, a question of what can happen when when we build bridges across generations? The business world may still celebrate young disruptors, but what if intergenerational collaboration is the ultimate disruptor?
A recent MIT Management study suggested, “Good ideas come at any age, but it takes experience to turn them into success stories. Steve Jobs was 21 when he helped found Apple, but he was a 43-year-old CEO when the company created the iMac.”
In an increasingly fast-paced world, many of the freshest ideas are coming from young people. But great leaders understand that it’s not easy to translate vision into reality. And they realize they can’t do it alone. The most effective leaders are those who seek out what they and their company need, just like Airbnb’s Brian Chesky did with me. And often, what’s needed is good old-fashioned wisdom. That kind of growth mindset is ageless, and it represents a higher form of leadership.
Chip Conley is the author of “Wisdom at Work: The Making of a Modern Elder” from which this article is based. Chip will be one of the keynote speakers at the Annual New York City SHRM conference on April 5, 2019. For more information on Chip’s session and other conference details, click here: https://www.nycshrm.org/mpage/p/?l=2019-annual-conference.
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