Make Room for Next-generation Leaders Now

Just as my parents and their peers were shaped by the Great Depression and Second World War, imbuing them with frugalness and a sense of shared sacrifice, we will all be molded by this pandemic, the economic fallout it has created and the social unrest that has arisen in its midst.  So too will our organizations. 

The clay is wet right now, and our organizations will be shaped—likely even transformed—by the decisions we make and the actions we take in the months ahead.  With that in mind, it is critical that executives make room at the table for the next generation of leaders. 

Typically, Executive Leadership Teams of large organizations are dominated by 50- and 60-somethings who have risen through the ranks to achieve the apex of their influence.  Their accumulated experience and wisdom can be essential to guiding the organization through these uncertain times.  But it’s not enough.  In fact, experience can be overrated, especially during times of disruptive change. 

“…experience can be overrated, especially during times of disruptive change.” 

In charting the path forward, Leadership Teams must actively engage younger, more diverse leaders, whose unique perspectives are shaped more by imagination than by experience.  During a crisis, even as decision-making becomes more centralized (as it often must), Leadership Teams must ensure that the decision-making process includes alternative perspectives offered by the next generation.  Remember, your next generation of leaders will have to live the longest with the consequences of the decisions you’re making—just as Millennial Brits, who overwhelmingly supported staying in the European Union, will have to live longest with the consequences of Brexit.  While I’m not advocating that you hand over decision-making to those with less experience, I am suggesting that it’s wise and right at this moment to engage younger leaders as you explore options for navigating the world ahead.  Leadership needs to create the space for the next generation to voice their ideas and recommendations as part of your decision-making process on strategy and operations.

“…Leadership Teams must actively engage younger, more diverse leaders, whose unique perspectives are shaped more by imagination than by experience.” 

On a related note, I’ve spoken with several CEOs and other senior executives who are considering postponing their planned departures until they’ve led the organization through the pandemic.  My advice: don’t delay.  Yes, the “deep end” into which your successor will be thrown will feel even deeper.  But leading during these extraordinary times will generate outsized learnings and experiences—and those are better conferred on the next leader, who will be responsible for running things for many years to come. 

By all means, find a way to stay close to your successor—serve as an advisor, maintain your seat on the Board.  Often it can be helpful internally and externally to keep a veteran leader around as a public face during an extended period of uncertainty.  But make room for the next generation.  Get them to the table now.  Their tenures will be shaped by the decisions that are being made today, and they must live with the consequences. 


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