Australian Financial Review
February 24, 2020

If you’re approaching your 47th birthday, it’s time to start schmoozing your company’s board.

A review of the top 300 companies listed on the Australian Securities Exchange has revealed that the average age a person becomes chief executive is 47, according to research by executive search firm Blenheim Partners.

But if you’re older than 55 and still haven’t made it, the chances you will become a CEO are slim.

Blenheim Partners managing director Gregory Robinson declined to say whether the results reflected an ageist attitude towards older people in business but said there was a perception that younger people had more energy and were more in step with technological developments and disruptive trends.

“The perception is that younger candidates with appropriate experience have more energy. It’s around the whole energy factor, the physical and mental demands of the role,” Mr Robinson said.

The trend also reflects that the average age of board members is falling, according to Mr Robinson. Board members are more inclined to appoint someone who is their age or younger.

Prominent CEOs who were appointed at 47 include Bendigo and Adelaide Bank’s Marnie Baker and Tabcorp’s David Attenborough.

Sectors with the most youthful CEO appointments were the consumer goods sector (at the tender age of 44) and real estate, industrials  and energy, which all had an average age of 45.

Dash of naivety?

The most senior CEOs were appointed in telecommunications (aged 52) and healthcare and financial services (aged 49).

Having spoken to many CEOs who took up the mantle early in their 40s, Mr Robinson said a dash of naivety may have also helped them step up to the challenge.

“Looking back five years after their appointment, they might say, ‘My goodness me, to have stepped into that role, was I really equipped to step up to the role? Gosh, I really bit off more than I could chew and had to mature really fast,'” Mr Robinson said.

It’s less likely you’ll get the job offer once you’re past 55, with 90 per cent of CEOs already appointed by that age.

There are many notable outliers to the 55-year deadline, especially at companies with larger market capitalisation, which tend to hire more senior, internal candidates.

These include Paul Perreault, who was 56 when he became CSL’s CEO, Shemara Wikramanayake, who became Macquarie Group’s boss at 57 and National Australia Bank CEO Ross McEwan, who was appointed at 62.

“It will be a smoother and safer bet to appoint someone internal, and internal tends to be someone who has served their time and earned a right to be CEO, built their relationships and tends to be a little bit older than in those smaller caps,” Mr Robinson said.

He urged those starting out in their career who aspired to become CEO to start assuming more responsibility now.

“If you’re starting out, it’s all about positioning yourself and taking more responsibility and accountability as early as you can and sticking your head down, quite frankly,” he said.

“The clock is ticking.”

Article by Liz Main, Reporter


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