Do Leaders Improve With Age?

February 15, 2021

Leaders improve with Age

A long-held belief holds that managers acquire the lion’s share of their management and leadership skills from their on-the-job experience. In the HR community, there is a widespread belief that 70% of a leader’s skills come from work experience, 20% come from coaching from their manager and others, and 10% comes from formal development activities. It sounds good. But is it true? Do leaders improve with age and time on the job?

My colleague, Joe Folkman, and I turned to our database of 360-degree feedback instruments to discover if leaders improve with age. We selected a group of 58,959 leaders for whom we have demographic data. We broke them into four age groups to see if it is indeed the older leaders who are perceived as being more effective compared to their younger counterparts. We further refined our analysis by examining those people who were currently in:

    • top management positions,
    • reporting into the C-suite,
    • middle management, and
    • front-line or supervisory positions.

The graph below shows what we found—the effectiveness of leaders in general actually declines as they age. This totally contradicts the long-held assumption that leaders learn from their work and experience in their position.

Leadership and Age Study by Zenger Folkman
Worse yet, those reporting to top management not only did not improve with age, but the older leaders also had lower scores, not higher. The same holds even more true for those in middle-management. They declined by 6%. Front-line supervisors declined even further, showing a 16% less favorable rating when comparing the age bands. Only individual contributors showed an improvement in the way they were perceived, based on their age.

We extract two essential conclusions from this.

  1. We fear this is a confirmation that the twin demons besetting people in authority are indeed arrogance and complacency. It is as if you can hear them musing to themselves, “I’ve been put in a management position, and therefore, I must be terrific,” “I’m above needing to work on improving my leadership skills,” or, “I don’t need to participate in development activities—that’s for the people beneath me who really need it.” Sadly, we still see many organizations where those beliefs prevail among the most senior leaders. We continue to see many organizations where the senior leaders don’t participate in formal development.
  2. Without external incentives, tools, and programs, the average leader will at best coast on a horizontal plateau. More likely, their career will follow a gradually descending glide path. If this continues, everyone loses.
    • The organization’s performance is negatively impacted.
    • Executives and managers are disappointed in their lack of career progress and the attendant rewards they expect. Contrary to their hopes, the manager is not deserving of increased compensation and other perquisites through their career. They will be disappointed in their lack of progress. Measures of managerial engagement are consistent with these findings.
    • Direct reports suffer from working under a mediocre manager.

It should be a shocking dose of reality for C-suite and HR executives to suddenly realize that what they thought was supplying 70% of the development for executives and managers is having no effect at all. Logic would argue that attention would shift to the role of coaching and mentoring as the next primary source for development. The challenge is that the coaching solution counts on the very group who do not appear to be practicing much self-development, and it is generally acknowledged that the higher you move in the hierarchy, the less likely you are to receive coaching from an internal source.

How Some Escape

We have been talking about statistical averages and the plight of leaders as if they were one group. The good news is that within each one of these age categories, broken out by levels in the management hierarchy, people are achieving very high scores. We continue to believe that focusing on these groups and helping all leaders understand what they do differently has great promise. We can help everyone to identify these behaviors and deliberately learn to behave that way. We can escape what would appear to be a destiny of mediocrity.

Every leader’s current position can be used as a highly effective classroom in which to learn. It can be a vibrant laboratory in which to experiment. However, it requires deliberate action.  Here are a few that we would recommend in order to help leaders improve with age:

  • Frequently ask for feedback from your managers, peers, and direct reports. Rather than waiting for a formal performance review, ask specific questions of your manager. Seek peer feedback on how your group can more effectively work with other groups in the organization. Ask direct reports for suggestions regarding how things could work better in your arena.
  • Deliberately climb out of your comfort zone. Get away from your desk. Ask for everyone’s views about good ideas that haven’t yet been implemented.
  • Sign up for formal development. This can be your catalyst for change. It often connects you with people outside your firm. From them, you will hear new approaches, new processes, and new ways of thinking about old problems.
  • The best leaders are excellent communicators. Try ramping up the frequency and amount of communication emanating from you. Try new vehicles, such as a videocast if you have remote employees. Write more letters. Have more “all hands” meetings in which to answer their important questions.
  • Help your team collectively choose and commit to a stretch goal. Nothing seems to unite a group more than that.

It is time to jettison the old 70/20/10 rule of thumb about the sources of leadership development.

There is no evidence that leaders get better simply by having more miles on the road. The opposite is true leaders don’t improve with age. Rather than getting better, there is a slow decline. Something dramatic is required to break out of the rut. A few people have the discipline to wind their own mainspring and continuously improve. But the great majority of leaders do not. To all readers, I implore you to consider these simple questions. What is your personal plan for becoming a better leader? On a scale of 1 to 10, what is your level of commitment to that plan? What grade would you give yourself about the progress you’ve made in the last year?

-Jack Zenger

Connect with Zenger Folkman on LinkedIn, Twitter,  or Facebook.

Learn more about Zenger Folkman’s 360-Degree Assessments and leadership development workshops. Register for this month’s leadership webinar hosted by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.

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