An overlooked cohort is providing wisdom and stability in times of upheaval

Werner Boel tells the story of an organization that had imploded at the senior executive and board levels, a community-critical organization with a public dimension. “The situation wasn’t being handled well, and there was tremendous upheaval in the community…. It was a textbook example of how not to do things,” says Boel, senior partner and practice leader, legal and compliance, at the global executive search and leadership advisory firm WittKieffer. When the organization approached people to help it repair itself, “everybody ran for the hills.”

But the search consultant and remaining board members came up with a “novel strategy,” Boel says. They brought in a retired leader “who had the experience, was very familiar with the industry and its dynamics, and had a level of understanding and pedigree that would send the signal to the market that the organization was serious. This would help the organization get back into the market, attract talent, and address worries and concerns around the institution’s commitment to turn the page and do so in the way things needed to be done. They wouldn't have been able to recruit anybody if we hadn't taken that approach to help them rebuild the senior leadership team,” Boel says. “The person's robust background and experience had a tremendous impact on the institution and they're blossoming today.”

A novel approach, but one that may be taken more often in the future. For one, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the number of people 75 plus in the U.S. labor force is expected to grow 96.5% by 2030; it is the only labor cohort expected to rise. (The 25- to 54-year-old cohort will hold steady, and the 16- to 24-year-old cohort will shrink by 7.5%.) Globally, the story is similar. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that by 2050, the share of the population aged 50 and older will increase from 37% in 2020 to 45% on average in the organization’s 38 member countries. In addition, “the share of the population aged 20 to 64 in OECD countries has been declining since 2010 and will continue to do so.”

Math alone might make retaining and hiring older or “seasoned” executives a necessity. But there are plenty of other reasons to start looking at that cohort now to fill roles in C-suites and other executive positions.

Proven value

There are a lot of advantages to hiring seasoned executives, says Michael Clinton, former president and publishing director of Hearst Magazines and author of ROAR into the second half of your life (Before It's Too Late). “Younger professionals deal with things like buying homes, marrying, having children, elder care. For many seasoned professionals, those [life decisions] are behind them and that brings a different dynamic to the interaction between employer and employee. Also, seasoned executives have been through varied economic cycles. I myself have been through a half a dozen recessions. When the bottom falls out, that seasoned executive brings perspective, wisdom, knowledge, and a sense of calm to the panic of the moment. They also tend to have had many different kinds of experiences, cross-disciplinary experiences within their company. They're very savvy.”

Executive search consultants agree on the value of seasoned executives. They have the “breadth of experience, calmness, gravitas,” says Susanne Thorning-Lund, partner, chair and board practice, at the executive search and talent consulting firm Odgers Berndtson in London. But there are some possible challenges that need to be addressed:

SKILLS KNOWLEDGE:The phrase, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” comes to mind when some people talk about older employees. The impact of training, upskilling, reskilling, lifelong learning at every level of an organization can’t be overstated. A recent Generation report from McKinsey says that employers value training and found that 74% of those in midcareer who switched jobs believe relevant training helped them get hired in their new position. As Clinton puts it, it's “important for 30-year-old- and 60-year-old-employees to learn new skills to keep your employee base innovative, on their game and contributing in different kinds of ways.”

CULTURAL MORES: Boel points out that changing culture dictates changing attitudes. “If your client has been part of an institution that was always white male, for example, are they able to work in a much more diverse workplace than they might have been used to? Have they kept up with the times; do they understand the need to be mindful of pronouns and gender identity? Maybe we need to have conversations with candidates without making them feel that because of their age, we think they don’t get it. There’s tremendous opportunity for these candidates to prepare themselves.”

EMPLOYER AGE BIAS: Iff there is age bias among employers, executive search consultants must take this on, Clinton says. “There's a lot of discussion about unconscious bias and microaggression and all the words that we use for DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion], but it's never used with people who are 50 plus, regardless of their race or gender. What you hear from recruiters is, ‘Well, our client doesn't want to see a 57-year-old’s resume”. That's not the right answer. Search consultants need to be the ones to go in and say, this is why this 57 year-old or this 65 year-old is the right candidate for you. But isn't part of your job to sell the right level of talent? There will be leaders in the executive recruiting space who will emerge who will help to normalize this.”

Two-way street

While executive search consultants can’t say there is a definitive trend, they are finding that many companies are receptive to hiring seasoned executives. But “it depends,” Boel says. “Every client starts with a notion of their ideal [candidate] profile. We may suggest they look at somebody that's a late career. If the client is not open to it, I don't think there is any room to force it, but I think that's where we can definitely help clients understand or explore things in a way that they didn't previously think about.”

Ultimately, what companies should be looking at, says Thorning-Lund “are the intrinsic values and experience that someone could bring.” She believes society is more open to late-stage careers “so it’s down to the individual to come up with a compelling reason for why they’re the right person for a particular role. Job seekers have to do their research, and the companies have to be clear as well — maybe this is in interim role, maybe it’s something we need for two years, and what might that look like?” She does say that in the UK, there is a lot of evidence of people having second or even third careers. And in Japan, which has the world’s largest proportion of people 65+ (28%), circumstances are dictating that people continue working in the same profession or find another. According to global publisher Nikkei Asia, the number of career changes among workers in Japan over age 40 doubled in the five years through fiscal 2020.

Liz Jones, managing partner at Fisher Leadership in Australia, says that in her country second-career and post-retirement executives are an attractive candidate pool, particularly since the pandemic. “To say we're looking forward to our borders re-opening is an understatement. Labour shortages mean we will warmly welcome a flow of highly skilled international workers into the country. We need to revitalize our immigration strategy while accepting that population growth is not the only driver of growth. In addition, we need to rapidly build the capacity and capability of our own population. We have a huge candidate shortage in essential services such as health and education. A multi-pronged approach is needed.”

Organizations, Jones says “tell us they need ‘someone highly senior and with lots of gravitas who can cut to the chase quickly and get the work done.’ They ask us ‘Can you get us someone who's senior and older, who wants to come in and be a transformation catalyst for three months?’ We are fortunate in these instances to be able to partner with our Gig Executive business, and say ‘Yes! We’ve got a whole bank of senior talent lined up who are choosing to work differently, and would absolutely love to.’”

Cultivation required

If 100-year lives truly become the norm, Stanford’s study notes that few workers will be able to fund a 30-year retirement on a 40-year career and we can expect to face 60- year careers or more.

While writing his book, Clinton found that executives in their 50s are thinking, “’I can have another 20-year run in another industry or another career,’” he says. “And in fact, nearly 25 percent of new entrepreneurs are between 55 and 64. They have the money, they have the contacts, they have the experience. The employer is not in charge anymore.”

It’s to an organization’s peril to ignore seasoned professionals. “They’re going to have a much longer runway than they’ve traditionally had. And if they’re not going to [work] with you they’re going to [work] with someone else, or they’re going to become entrepreneurs and steal your clients away,” Clinton says. “If you don’t cultivate your seasoned executives, if you don’t hire seasoned executives, train them, cultivate them, retrain them, there are lots of alternatives emerging where they can comfortably move into another place and have a long second career. That’s going to be a detriment to corporations and ultimately to recruiters who are living in the old paradigm.”

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