High potentials over 55.

April 2022

We are contacted time and again by seasoned leaders who have to leave their companies as they are over the age of 55. The oft-quoted reason is “different views on the strategic direction of the company.” The real reasons are various, but what then happens often follows the same pattern. After a successful career spanning some 30 years, some fall into a hole in frustration and realize that they could only sustain their professional network as long as they held the position in question. It takes a lot of strength to restore injured self-esteem and plan for the future. For most, it is no longer about continuing their career. They would rather put their years of experience to use and do something meaningful. But progressing their career in management can become an increasingly bumpy experience and they can run into a wall. They therefore move to Plan B out of conviction or necessity.

Plan B: Board of directors mandates

Board of directors mandates are certainly suitable for channeling long-standing management experience into a company in a profitable way. Especially when the board of directors takes an active role beyond the bi-monthly meetings. This usually applies to the chairperson of the board of directors and, less frequently, to its individual members. But it is just not possible to launch a career as a multiple board member at the push of a button. Some “stranded people” do indeed manage to acquire a sustainable portfolio of BoD mandates within a short period of time. In most cases, these BoD careers were prepared long in advance through one or two part-time mandates. Due to the drive for gender diversity on boards of directors, women are currently finding it a little easier – but it’s not a free pass for them either.

Plan C: Coaching and management as an interim

As a last resort, 55+ year olds get involved in coaching and management as an interim measure. They set themselves up in business and try their hand at consulting. But not every successful former manager has the consulting gene, can develop a specialty that is in demand, and be hands-on if they have no entourage. Many also underestimate the uncertainties that go hand in hand with entrepreneurship.

So why not Plan A?

With average life expectancy well over 80 years, it is not obvious why a leader should be “on the scrapheap” from the age of 55. Energy levels are much more important than a birth certificate. And not enough value is placed on life and work experience. Heterogeneity in management bodies also calls for different backgrounds in experience. It is often argued candidates over 55 will only be available for a few more years until they reach regular retirement. But let’s be honest. What 42-year-old candidate commits to a term longer than five years? Another argument is that older candidates are less able to integrate. It may well be that adaptability decreases with age. But the willingness to engage in company politics also starts to wane, while the propensity to engage in fact-based discussions on efficient and pragmatically implementable solutions begins to wax.

Heterogeneous management teams with experienced high potentials are a must, especially now when markets are being disrupted and companies undergoing significant transformation.

There is a general perception that professional careers must be linear. But why? Why can’t a C-level executive move down a step during their last few years – of course with the requisite pay cut? Can’t they offer their services, say as a head corporate development for strategic projects and a sparring partner for the individual members of the executive board? Or be made part of a succession plan to act as a deputy to a much younger CEO?

Tailored to the challenges ahead, we regularly propose high potentials over 55 years to companies in our search mandates. They may not be chosen that often, but when they are a long-lasting successful relationship is created. Some examples:

  • A top manager of a large listed corporation who managed a business unit with several thousand employees became CEO of a medium-sized company with a few hundred employees at the age of 56, cutting his salary package in half. All parties were happy with this arrangement. The board of directors was delighted to be able to entrust this rapidly growing company to such a qualified, internationally experienced CEO. And the new CEO was glad to be taking on an exciting challenge and stepping into the hotseat again.
  • An insurance company welcomed onboard a 61-year-old expert in risk engineering who, with his Swiss Federal Institute of Technology degree and many years of experience in risk management, had expertise that was in very short supply.
  • A publicly traded industrial company chose a 59-year-old chief information officer “because he’s still full of energy and ultimately won’t run away.”
  • A financial services company hired a 56-year-old human resources manager because of her broad experience and outstanding command of leadership development.
  • A medium-sized telecommunications company recruited a 57-year-old CEO because of his proven turnaround experience and confident personality.

It is a misapprehension to think older managers automatically stand in the way of innovation. With their many years of experience, they can actually make a significant contribution to preventing errors in the implementation of ideas and plans and making them effective.

“Business transformation” and “diversity” are our core areas. As an agile, dynamic Swiss executive search boutique with integrated leadership consulting, we want to take joint responsibility to help companies evolve and move forward in the digital age. With its enthusiasm and expertise, Witena will be your sparring partner to support you as you grow and develop your company.