Davos Agenda

Why organizations need to nurture youth leadership – and how to do it

Not enough young people are present in boardrooms and leadership positions to reflect modern society and its cultural behaviours. Pictured: Commuters cast their shadows as they arrive to the Central Business District at the morning rush hour in Sydney July 1, 2013.

Not enough young people are present in boardrooms and top leadership positions to reflect modern society and its cultural behaviours Image: REUTERS/Daniel Munoz (AUSTRALIA - Tags: BUSINESS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION EMPLOYMENT)

Arjun Shekhar
Co-Founder, Pravah and ComMutiny - The Youth Collective
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • A 2021 study of 1,000 US organizations suggests the average age of a CEO across all sectors is 59 and that of the top leadership team is 56.
  • As the average age of countries' populations declines and society is increasingly dependent on digital tools and devices, a much younger leadership team is needed.
  • With 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day in the US, a huge leadership development gap will open.
  • To fill this gap, young people need the chance to experience the decision-making at the heart of successful businesses.

An organization is an abstraction. It lives in the imagination of its stakeholders. Some experts say the purpose and strategies of the organization give it life; others claim it comes alive in its values. Yet, both perspectives are about the future, a set of “shoulds” that the organization and its community aspire to realize.

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Is there any kernel of reality, then, in the abstraction? What is alive in the moment? Conversations and actions seem like the obvious answer. That’s what we can see in peoples’ behaviours in every organization. But what brings these behaviours alive are the thousands of daily decisions made by its people. At the heart of an organization are strategic decisions, decisions about people, operational decisions and financial decisions. The choices people make manifest into resolutions to act one way or another, to prioritize a goal or rank a value above another. They are the daily decisions that make an organization and breathe life into its purpose and culture.

Who are the decision makers?

Decisions are made at all levels but the way most organizations are structured means the most significant decisions are typically taken at the top of the pyramid. But who comprises the senior leadership team? A 2021 study of 1,000 US organizations by Korn Ferry suggests that the average age of a CEO across all sectors is 59 and that of the top leadership team is 56. Let’s not even get started on organizations’ boards.

The millennial is a quarter of a century too short. In India and APAC too, the average age of a CEO across sectors is 56. India became the youngest country in the world at a median age of 27 years in 2019. Is it not a travesty that the average age of the government’s top body for decision-making, the newly elected Cabinet of Union Ministers, was 64 in the same year?

Image: BusinessWire

Moreover, the hierarchical and patriarchal culture makes short shrift of even the token smattering of youth who make it to the hallowed board rooms; to put it starkly, they have to shout to be heard. Decisions are snatched from young people routinely in other spaces too. Adults still have a significant influence even on a young person’s personal decisions like career and educational stream choices, marriage and even who to vote for.

What does contemporary youth leadership bring to the table?

For millennia, youth has been equated with energy. The idea of the demographic dividend in recent times is an example of this thinking. As the average age of a country falls, the dependency ratio (working to non-working people) declines and, as more and more young people become productive workers and consumers, a new glorious chapter in the growth story of a country can, in theory, be written.

To really reap the dividend, however, youth has to be viewed from a different lens, for leadership. Apart from the abundance of energy, youth may also provide fresh perspectives, irreverence for the status quo and a disruptive, creative, innovative mind that is willing to try experiments that may fail with no concerns about reputation.

Youth’s relationship with technology is critical. Operating in a society that is largely dependent on digital tools and devices demands a much younger leadership team.

An even more compelling reason to give youth more power in organizations is highlighted in this Mark Zuckerberg quote: "Young people are just smarter." Tectonic shifts in the way information is accessed and processed since the advent of the smartphone have changed the outlook of the young significantly. They are more informed, aware and engaged than ever before. They have the knowledge but do they have the wisdom to take significant decisions?

How can we develop leadership potential?

Despite the huge increase in the decision-making potential of young people in recent years, organizations are not in a hurry to promote them to top leadership positions – but we have no choice. There are 2 billion millennials worldwide and as of last year, there were 5 million to 11 million millennials in management, business or financial operations roles in the US, already making inroads to senior management roles. With 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day in the US, a huge leadership development gap will open. In fact, a recent survey also states that 63% of millennials believe they lack the leadership development they need to succeed.

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What is a YGL?

Leadership Development in the millennial world doesn’t mean workshops and management school classrooms. For them, information is easy; what they lack is experience, especially experience in situations they have not faced before. Experiences that can take them into the heart of what an organization is all about: quick, everyday decision-making. These decisions need to be ringfenced so that they can become experiences to learn from rather than mistakes causing colossal failures that can damage morale forever.

To achieve this, supervisors will have to pivot their role from merely information and feedback providers to facilitators of experiences, navigators of leadership development and companions who both validate and challenge the young person. Instead of reaping the dividend from youthful energy, we should sow the seed of agency and leadership in our youth to create a force multiplier for change in both organizations and in a world crying out for social and psychological renewal.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaFuture of WorkYouth Perspectives
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