WHEN INTERNET fever was at its peak just over a year ago (can it really have been that recently?), there was frequent ruminating about the future of corporate veterans in these rapidly moving, highly successful companies. Technologically and culturally, it seemed, these highly touted enterprises were light years ahead of their stodgy, more traditional corporate counterparts.
Could executives who had lived through Sputnik, Vietnam, and the Cold War, not to mention Korea, really keep up in the face of youth's onslaught? More importantly, what could they contribute in this new-age environment where a computer was not a learned skill but a way of life?
The focus on youth was not, of course, a new phenomenon in America. For years it has had a profound effect on consumer and corporate behavior, from advertising campaigns to layoff strategies. And lately, as we have noted in our own research, the trend had begun to invade the executive suite.
New CEOs are getting younger...
In our Sixth Annual study of CEOs, "Route to the Top" (Chief Executive, February 2001), we found that since 1980, the incidence of CEOs under 50 had tripled among the study group of several hundred major public companies. As my partners Tom Neff and Dayton Ogden noted in the study, "We expect the trend to continue. Boards are looking for CEOs with the energy to drive businesses to the next level."
But in some quarters, there is a much different trend. When the dot-com craze came to a screeching halt, youthful managers no longer seemed quite so omniscient. In fact, the founding heads of many of the best-known of these companies -- Yahoo! Inc., for example -- have stepped aside in favor of leaders one or two generations older. This has been particularly true in newer companies, known for having young CEOs and young boards; when the going got rough, they had less in the way of experience and perspective to rely upon. As one 20-something Internet CEO recently said of his replacement, two decades his senior, "The time has come for a little parental supervision."
Ensuring succession is one of a board's most important and fundamental responsibilities. And while the market was focusing on youthful CEOs, we were noticing that the boards behind these CEO appointments were resisting the trend toward youth when it came to recruiting new board members. Confirmation of this hunch came somewhat serendipitously during the course of extensive board research we recently undertook.