“CEO” may conjure images of a gray-haired 65-year-old in a suit and tie, while “startup founder” may make you think of a 20-something in a t-shirt and skinny jeans.
All recent data shows that the reality, though, is somewhere in the middle — at least when it comes to the archetypical corporate leader’s age. (We can’t really speak to fashion choices.)
These young-ish leaders have different skills than their older counterparts. And they are facing a more complex landscape than ever before.
Many are pre-IPO and facing enormous pressure from their board and investors. They are navigating one of the most complex economies we’ve ever seen; difficult questions about how to respond to geopolitical crises and controversial political issues; and a workforce that is engaged, vocal, and fundamentally unlike anything previous generations of CEOs have faced before.
While every CEO is different, there is an archetype emerging with a different set of skills and challenges than the last generation.
→ Fearless. Because this new generation is more likely to have founded their company than climbed their way up the corporate ladder, they are not averse to calculated risk taking.
→ Good in a crisis. This even-keeled demeanor may be more a product of what these CEOs have lived through than a generational attribute. In either case, they are calm under pressure and typically capable of riding the highs and lows that come with growing a business.
→ Fluent in tech. Younger founders are not only more likely to have grown up using technology, they also in many cases helped build tech earlier in their career. Many trained as engineers. Even if they are not the ones writing code, they speak the language of their engineering team. Older CEOs who have climbed the corporate ladder are less likely to be fluent or comfortable having high-level conversations with key tech leaders in their organization.
→ Leading internal teams. CEOs who spend years auditioning for the job through a variety of corporate roles have the benefit of honing their management skills. Younger CEOs (especially founders) often find that they struggle to manage and convey their vision once the team gets too big to fit in a garage. Leadership and management don’t come naturally to everyone; they are real skills that need to be honed.
→ Navigating communications risk: Founder/CEOs have a worthy bias toward authenticity. They don’t want to be packaged or handled, but at the same time they’re extremely worried about misspeaking or having their words taken out of context. This frequently results in a communications paralysis: They don’t want to resort to “corporatespeak,” but they also don’t trust themselves to speak off the cuff.
→ Health and wellness: There are endless articles about younger CEOs who exercise relentlessly, have very specific diets, and go on tech detox retreats. The truth is, the vast majority of next-generation leaders struggle tremendously with the stresses and demands of their jobs.
In sum: The overwhelming majority of founder/CEOs are hungry to learn and grow, but they can get so caught up in the goal or crisis of the moment that it’s challenging to step back and see the big picture. Being a CEO may seem glamorous, but it can be the loneliest job in the world. Surrounding yourself with people you trust – and enjoy working with – is crucial.