In most well-established companies in the world, CEOs have gray hairs and the wisdom associated with their acquisition. Although reaching the top of the corporate ladder is often the result of decades of hard work, a significant number of under-30s show that it is possible to lead successful companies long before the process of growth begins. aging.
These young CEOs clearly lack the experience of their FTSE-100 counterparts, whose average age is 55, but is that such an important factor in effective corporate leadership?
Whether leadership is an inherent skill — something a young CEO may be predisposed to — has long been debated. Several studies have looked at the effects of a person’s genetics, upbringing and cultural experiences on their leadership potential, but Connson Locke, senior lecturer in management at the London School of Economics, notes that the research suggests that ‘”no single trait will make you a good leader in all settings”.
Locke recently wrote a book called Make your voice heard: how to own your space, access your inner power and become influential. It examines the deep and genuine passions that have been a key part of the story of many young CEOs. In it, she argues that to be an influencer, you have to start with yourself. In other words: “If you don’t know what you stand for and what you love, what are you going to try to influence people about?”
Learn on the job
Onyinye Udokporo, 23, is a CEO who found her passion much earlier than most. She founded Enrich Learning, an online education platform that supports young people around the world, four years ago while a student at King’s College London. It had actually been a long time coming: she had started tutoring children when she was only 12 herself. By the time Udokporo turned 18, she had helped hundreds of students.
The catalyst for starting the business was her experience attending a summer school at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “The time I spent there opened my mind. It allowed me to see how education could be offered in a unique, cost-effective and more accessible way,” recalls Udokporo, who adds, “My record shows that in some cases I gained more practical experience at the age of 23. than older CEOs.
Are there particular attributes that young CEOs typically lack? According to Locke, all leaders must get better at asking, listening, and learning. The realization that you don’t always know what’s best often develops with age, so young entrepreneurs should pay special attention to developing these skills, she advises.
Business demands are increasing and there are limits to a person’s ability to meet them, observes Locke. “There are so many stakeholders now – it’s not just about making a business profitable. You also have to take care of the environment, make sure the community is supported, consider diversity issues, etc. A leader must admit that he will not know the answer to everything.
Young CEOs may not always exhibit a high level of humility – an important leadership quality that often stems from bitter experiences – but early failure can certainly accelerate its development.
Three companies at 28
Joel Gujral, 28, is CEO of Myndup. It’s already his third venture, after short-lived forays into software and tea. Created only two years ago, the mental health platform already has tens of thousands of users. His company has won contracts with several major employers, including the NHS, to provide services to their staff. It connects users with expert practitioners who can provide one-on-one video sessions offering help ranging from counseling to career coaching.
Gujral reports that one of his greatest accomplishments to date has been building a team with specialist skills and then seeking advice from its members, even though it has resulted in difficult conversations. “As CEO, I’m always open to feedback. You have to be able to change and adapt to different environments,” he says.
Leadership styles are often categorized as agentic or communal. CEOs in the first category tend to be independent, assertive, and powerful influencers, while those in the second tend to be warm, caring, and responsive. Locke says that, while agentics can be considered left-handed and community right-handed, “a good leader is ambidextrous.” All CEOs should try to balance these two styles, she suggests: inspiring people with your ideas and passion, but also consulting them and really considering those with expertise.
Sankalp Chaturvedi, professor of organizational behavior and leadership at Imperial College Business School, is interested in the relationships between leaders and followers at work. He observes that the digital transformation of companies; changing people’s expectations of work; and environmental conditions such as the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis have all impacted followers. Leaders must be both resilient and open to new ways of working to ensure the leader-follower relationship continues to be as effective as possible, he argues.
“As the nature of followers and types of jobs change, the role of the leader must adapt to these changes,” says Chaturvedi.
Younger (or aspiring) CEOs can look to education to prepare for the challenges such adjustments will present. Chaturvedi compares leadership education to swimming, where a teacher guides the student through the correct techniques, but the learner must jump within themselves, practice and perfect their new skills on the job.
Natasha Eeles, 27, is the founder and CEO of Bold Voices, a company that works with schools, students and their parents to tackle gender inequality. Along with Gujral, she graduated from the New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF), a leadership program that pairs young entrepreneurs with experienced mentors.
“As a founder, I learned most things on the job, but there were elements of education without which I would probably be lost,” admits Eeles. During the NEF, she “had the opportunity to learn practical skills alongside other founders, learn from entrepreneurs, and have people to bounce their ideas off of. It has been invaluable.
Stef Williams, 29, CEO of clothing brand Sefi and fitness app WeGlow, is mostly self-taught. She believes that the rise of social media has “broken the mold of entrepreneurship”. Its platforms have given creatives without any formal leadership training a chance to start and run successful businesses.
Younger CEOs are digital natives who perhaps understand better than their older counterparts how the latest technologies can work for them on a business level. Williams is an Instagram influencer who has amassed 1.5 million followers. It helped her turn her interests in fitness and fashion into two businesses, each with a team of 10 employees.
Williams stresses that she is open to furthering her knowledge in a more formal setting. “I would definitely be interested in taking classes in the future,” she says. “There is always room to grow.”
She and many other young CEOs demonstrate that there are ways for under-30s and even Gen Zers to step into what was once considered the domain of their elders and become effective business leaders. Ultimately, good leadership is a combination of many things – and clearly experience is by no means the most important factor.