Facebook’s recent filing for an initial public offering attracted the eyes of business savants and casual onlookers from New York to Shanghai. Among the questions most had anticipated to be answered by the IPO, one was top of mind: How many billions of dollars might the company be worth once the long-awaited offering goes public?
The answer, some have speculated, could reach as high as $100 billion. That would put Facebook’s market capitalization above the likes of Hewlett-Packard Co. and Amazon.com — a truly astounding feat for a social networking company still less than 10 years old.
But once the first wave of speculation and awe surrounding Facebook’s financial heft subsided, an important story for CLOs emerged: When Facebook does goes public, it will instantly make its 27-year-old founder, Mark Zuckerberg, the youngest CEO at a Fortune 1000 company.
This is in line with a larger trend. CEOs at major organizations are getting younger. In 2010, the average age of incoming CEOs at S&P 500 firms was 52.9, down from 54.7 in 2006, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that cited research by the Conference Board.
Yet this trend is not limited to the position of CEO; young high potentials at all levels are filling out managerial ranks. This begs the question: What different leadership skills do young leaders bring to the table and how might the CLO best develop such skills?
For starters, younger leaders bring a level of creativity and innovation that is “unburdened by the past,” according to David DeLong, author of The Executive Guide to High-Impact Talent Management: Powerful Tools for Leveraging a Changing Workforce and the president of his own strategic consulting firm, David DeLong and Associates.
Facebook’s Zuckerberg may match this description, but DeLong cautioned against painting him and other young tech executives as model examples. Zuckerberg is among a select group of outliers, he said, leaders who, in many respects, “won the lottery” when their start-ups caught fire and grew successful. Facebook declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
Another skill younger leaders bring to the table is they have an easier time motivating younger workforces. This is growing more important as Generation Y continues to creep into corporate offices, bringing with them a new take on how work gets done and a different set of workplace values. “These younger leaders are more likely to understand and relate to them,” DeLong said.
Moreover, the increased pace at which business gets done also favors younger leaders, said Sim B. Sitkin, professor of management and faculty director for the Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “[Young leaders] are sprinters rather than long-distance runners,” Sitkin said. “So they bring an energy and intensity that can be especially helpful in today’s fast-paced world of change, and that can be infectious to teams or organizations that need to raise the pace and focus of their game.”
A corollary of this trait, Sitkin added, is that younger leaders “seem more able to switch gears and let go of old routines or good ideas that just didn’t work out.”
Teaching these leadership traits burdens the CLO with the responsibility of understanding what kinds of learning programs will best align with the demands of a younger workforce. According to DeLong, heavy doses of experiential learning are best for younger leaders — not classroom instruction.
The last thing a CLO should do, DeLong said, is sit a young leader at a desk and lecture him or her. Younger leaders thrive on learning from new experiences. They need to be engaged in real-time critical thinking drills that will best enable them to use and experiment with the skills that make them unique as leaders to begin with.
Younger leaders are also more comfortable using technology, both in their leadership development and on the job, said Sitkin. Social learning and team-based teaching environments that weave in the use of technology are important development tools that younger leaders are likely to embrace.
But most importantly, young leaders need great mentors. Even though younger leaders may have skills and competencies that older leaders lack, they still need role models; someone to look up to for leadership traits that can only be acquired through great experience — experience that young leaders may have yet to go through themselves, DeLong said.
Yet, in the end, be wary of overloading young leaders with formalized instruction or training. Their penchant for experiential learning suggests that the best tool is to give them a framework for development — and to let the rest come naturally.
“What is critical is to identify the few vital behaviors,” DeLong said. “What are the few things that will really matter in their immediate development?”
Frank Kalman is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOmedia.com.