Tenure and the Ticking Clock

As of this moment, just weeks before the November election, Ronald Reagan holds the record as the oldest person to ever hold office. In a debate in 1984, he was asked a question about his age and whether he had enough stamina to keep on running the country. His famous answer: “I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Of course, age in and of itself doesn’t matter. Yet it is often used as shorthand in terms of that long-standing debate, argued between generations since time immemorial. Though it can take the form of suits and ties versus long hair and bell-bottoms or texting versus Facebook, the underlying clash remains the same: What is more valuable—the wisdom and accomplishment of the experienced, or the creativity and passion of the neophyte?

Now, please don’t misunderstand me—I’m not here to compare the role of president to the role of CEO. Instead, I’m interested in leadership, specifically what keeps a leader effective, no matter how long in the tooth or wet behind the ears he or she is. The question, which I go into at length on Deloitte’s website, is: When a person becomes a CEO, is it just a matter of time before he or she loses the ability to be effective and to keep the company competitive? Do all CEOs inevitably become obsolete?

In 2008, after John McCain admitted that he did not know how to use a computer—or, mind-boggling in light of the current challenges of the Clinton campaign, feel the need to email—Barack Obama’s campaign made a television ad in which they called the Republican nominee “out of touch.” Now, would his technology illiteracy have made him a bad president? Not necessarily. But what’s striking about these interviews is that McCain showed a strong incuriosity about technology in general. In an interview on CNN, he said, “I read my emails, but I don’t write any. I’m a Neanderthal—I don’t even type. I do have rudimentary capabilities to call up some websites, like the New York Times online, that sort of stuff. No laptop. No PalmPilot. I prefer my schedule on notecards, which I keep in my jacket pocket.”

Obviously, that admission was a mistake for many reasons. The fact that McCain’s wife read his emails aloud to him every night was cute, in a Leave-It-to-Beaver kind of way, but it didn’t do much for his image. Now, fast forward to 2016. According to an article published last week in the Wall Street Journal, CEOs are staying longer in the corner office, many beyond the age of sixty-four. And a recent study found that the benefits of a CEO’s on-the-job experience can be offset over time, especially if the CEO relies on go-to behaviors despite changes in the competitive environment. Plus, the negative effects of CEO tenure multiply over time, as CEOs gain power.1 In short, no matter how old or experienced a CEO is, it is up to him or her to stay in the know.

We live in a world where innovation is arguably more critical than ever before, and where advancements occur at a breakneck speed. To avoid complacency and the loss of competitive edge, a CEO must be purposeful about introspection and committed to ongoing growth. She must question her established approaches and guard against the common urge to resist the new and unfamiliar, and build a management team composed of people who value honesty, diversity, and creativity to help her do that. And, perhaps above all else, she must be curious about the people around her, the current business environment, and the future that is fast on its way.

1 Peter Limbach, Markus Schmid, and Meik Scholz of the University of St. Gallen School of Finance, “All Good Things Come to an End: CEO Life Cycle and Firm Performance,” March 31, 2016, updated from July 3, 2015.