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Avani Davda (left), head of the Starbucks-Tata joint venture in India, Phanindra Sama (centre), CEO of redBus, Hari Krishnan managing director—Asia Pacific and Japan at LinkedIn. Photos: Sameer Joshi, Hemant Mishra and Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint (Sameer Joshi, Hemant Mishra and Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)
Avani Davda (left), head of the Starbucks-Tata joint venture in India, Phanindra Sama (centre), CEO of redBus, Hari Krishnan managing director—Asia Pacific and Japan at LinkedIn. Photos: Sameer Joshi, Hemant Mishra and Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
(Sameer Joshi, Hemant Mishra and Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint)

The age factor

Is the average age of India’s corporate leaders coming down? What are the advantages and pitfalls of this phenomenon

Avani Davda(above left), head of the Starbucks-Tata joint venture in India; Tarun Katial, chief executive officer (CEO) of Reliance Broadcast Network Ltd that operates the BIG 92.7 FM radio station; Phanindra Sama (above centre), CEO of redBus; and Hari Krishnan (above right) managing director—Asia Pacific and Japan at LinkedIn; are all in their 30s. As is CEO Mittu Chandilya and the entire leadership team of AirAsia’s latest India venture. Is the average age of India’s corporate leaders coming down, and what are the advantages and pitfalls of this phenomenon:

L. Prasad, professor, organizational behaviour, IIM-B

The perennial debate of whether the age of top management matters is based on specious arguments. It is based on erroneous, stereotypical assumptions that older executives with a seasoned temperament based on years of experience bring a steady hand to the tiller. However, they may tend to be conservative and overly cautious. Younger executives bring the energy to tackle tough organizational problems with gusto, but could also cause problems because of their brash, Yankee cowboy approach of not thinking things through properly, and a tendency to shoot from the hip, without aiming properly.

Those looking for top management material eschew such superficial considerations and evaluate candidates on whether they have the leadership qualities to reflect beyond the obvious and inculcate soft skills that transform people. Seeing beyond the obvious ensures that they have the peripheral vision to, paraphrasing ice-hockey great Wayne Gretzky, take the organization to where the world is going to be tomorrow, rather than where the world is now. Do they have what it takes to deal with issues by tackling the root cause(s) in a proactive, holistic manner? Or, do they cursorily focus on symptoms in a reactive, piecemeal way? Over the years, not only must they have had a superlative performance track record, but should also have the ability to make the metamorphosis from gardener (with a 6-12 months horizon) to a farmer (with a 5-6 years focus), and finally, to a forester (with a 20-30 year perspective)!

Futurist Alvin Toffler cautioned that the illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those unable to learn, unlearn and re-learn! Therefore, in grooming or selecting individuals for top management, scrupulously discard the Hi-EQ:Lo-IQ types who may look good on paper, but regress into bleating like “half-witted sheep" when actually given onerous responsibilities. Instead, try to spot Hi-EQ: Hi-IQ consummate professionals with the composure to be calm in a crisis and recover quickly from mistakes, and the uncanny knack of putting people at ease by maintaining and using professional relationships for mentoring, coaching and feedback.

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Saroj K. Datta, former executive director of Jet Airways:

Young chief executive officers instil fresh thinking and introduce new ideas in their companies, says Saroj K. Datta, former executive director of Jet Airways (India) Ltd. “They don’t come with pre-conceived notions into the company. In other words, they don’t carry baggage with them. This is a great advantage," Datta says.

With nearly 50 years of experience in civil aviation, Datta has been involved with Jet Airways since its inception in May 1993 and is currently an independent aviation consultant.

While pointing out that the average age of Indian corporate leaders is coming down, Datta cautions promoters that they should exercise extreme care in selecting young leaders who can live up to their expectations.

“In many cases, promoters will hand-hold these young chief executives for an initial period to train them. I don’t believe Tony Fernandes (group chief executive officer of AirAsia Bhd) has a minor role in AirAsia India," Datta says. He believes that like any other promoter Fernandes will play a major role in training and grooming his 32-year-old AirAsia India chief executive officer Mittu Chandilya.

“The key issue with young leaders could be their inexperience. They will face a number of issues, including (those related to) human resources and government regulations. This is not because of the young leaders or their companies, but purely owing to external reasons. It is common in India that these kinds of problems arise every now and then," Datta says, adding that young leaders might not have faced such external and geo-political challenges in real life. There’s another aspect to promoters hiring young CEOs. “In the perspective of promoters, it is easy to get rid of these young leaders if they fail to deliver—without unsettling the current landscape. The reason being that young chief executives are not coming with any baggage," Datta adds.

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Padmaja Alaganandan, leader People and Change Consulting, PwC India

Harvard professor John Kotter defined leadership as the ability to produce useful change. And for change to be effective in different situations, it calls for a diverse range of skill sets, ranging from strong execution focus (Lou Gerstner and IBM Corp. is the most famous example), rallying a team with vision, cognitive ability to see a different future, standing by a dream and taking risks—our leadership fables present all these cases. Ultimately, leadership is contextual.

Our current times represent the most eventful in the recent history of India, as well as throughout the world. In the ‘70s, the futurist Alvin Toffler talked of how if plotted on a graph, the line representing progress of the past two generations would leap vertically off the page of history. Forty years later, this is only more true; we have industries that did not exist a couple of decades ago, organizations with unimagined employee headcount and scale of operations that can be compared with a state or country. In the history of mankind, age or experience have never counted for less, as the rate of change is so fast that age does not have a similar experience in its repertoire to draw a parallel to, and provide counsel on.

The trend of younger CEOs is here to stay. For one, a younger workforce and demographic profile mean that statistically, we will have younger leaders too. In some industries particularly where customer profile is young, rate of change is high and collaborative models are needed, younger CEOs come with advantages—generally greater openness to risk taking, willingness to innovate, and greater degree of energy and willingness to go with change. Contextual leadership means that skill sets to lead in certain situations are with a different age profile.

At the same time, experience and time are perhaps the greatest developers of leaders. The value of experience lies not in equipping people with capability to deal with a specific situation, but in helping build attributes of courage, humility, civic consciousness and empathy. Time and experience burnishes a leader.

Research in the US has shown a growing trend of casual leadership styles among young CEOs, with an “informal, irreverent and brutally honest tone" not uncommon. Yet, the same study found that young CEOs are increasingly interacting with seasoned CEOs, closely pairing themselves with their board of directors for advice on running the company. Through this combination, more and more companies can get the best of both worlds.

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