One Big Switch Every Leader Must Make Over Time

I’ve noticed something about my generation of established leaders. Wanna know what it is? We like control and we don’t want to let go of it.

USA Today recently ran a cover article about this very 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. So—if you look at many of the largest companies in the U.S., you’ll find a gray and aging CEO:

  • Warren Buffet, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway . . . is 85 years old.
  • Rupert Murdoch, Chairman of Twentieth Century Fox . . . is 85 years old.
  • Ellen Gordon, CEO of Tootsie Roll . . . is 84 years old.
  • Robert G. Wilmers, CEO of M & T Bank . . . . is 81 years old.

The list goes on and on. In fact, over the last decade, the number of CEO’s ages 65-69 almost doubled in the U.S. The number who are ages 70-74 increased by 33 percent. According to management consulting firm Korn Ferry, “Over the last ten years the average Fortune 500 CEO age has inched up to 58, from 56.” It’s showing no signs of slowing down. The fact is—we who are seasoned veterans often don’t want to stop leading our organizations.

Lots of Gray and Green

Here’s the problem, as I see it. The two largest generations in America today are the Baby Boomers and the Millennials; the oldest and the youngest populations in the workforce. Lots of gray (seasoned veterans) and lots of green (new and fresh staff). To me, the greatest dilemma is not merely that people are working longer in their careers (some even need to do so). Our dilemma is 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. It’s wrong. We need to alter how the work gets done. If you’re a veteran who’s 40-45 years old, I suggest this is the perfect time to make this shift. For a veteran who’s 60-65 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

The shift I am speaking of is to transfer the source of your satisfaction from “doing the job” yourself, to “mentoring younger team members” to do so. I began to do this in the 1990’s, 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 to empowering Michael, Denise, Dan, J.T., Colleen, Jennifer, Steve, Robert, Suzy, Tim, Chris and so many other young leaders.

I began to see that my work can 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. And so far, Baby Boomers are not doing it so well, on the whole. We need to get over ourselves.

I see this in dozens of other countries where I have traveled. 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 culture.
  • The younger, potential leaders find somewhere else to invest their talent.

Making the Shift

So, let me outline some steps I had to take to make this fulfillment shift:

  1. Stop keeping score on how something gets done and focus on results. Let young team members do the task their own way, as long as it bears fruit.
  1. Let go of the phrase, “The Buck Stops Here,” and embrace the phrase: “Success without a successor is a failure.” Responsibility can be shared.
  1. Find pleasure in spotting talent and passion—then reward it. Fan into flame any sightings of potential and find a place for those people to invest it.
  1. Give up your pursuit of control. Too many worship at the altar of control. Make your goal connecting to younger teammates and invest in them.
  1. Stop worrying about your recognition and begin pondering your legacy. The world gets 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 the reins of projects to young and energetic staff who love the same cause I do. So, now I love empowering and cheering on Jim, J.T., Alysse, Clari, Tyler, Hannah, Chris, Matt, Andrew and others. I am having the time of my life “developing” more than “doing.”

Years ago, Bill Gates modeled this, when he stepped down as CEO of Microsoft. Like many others, he remained involved as Chairman but allowed the operations to shift to other staff, which enabled him to invest in and mentor them.

My challenge—as you age, please adjust.

One Big Switch Every Leader Must Make Over Time