Experience, Leadership And Age: How They "Work" Together


Much has been made in this presidential campaign – and much more will be made – about the value of experience and who is qualified to lead.

Often, relative youth is cited as a negative. Presidential candidate Barack Obama is 47 years old and has served short stints as an Illinois state senator and as a U.S. Senator. (Vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin is even younger, but that's another blog.)

His opponents say he lacks the experience necessary to be President. I’d argue, however, that some of our nation’s superstars, our most successful CEOs, are often under the age of 50, and that success in business is a terrific analogy for the business of politics and national governance.

First, some examples. Consider the ages of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs when they rose to the top of American business (with Microsoft and Apple, respectively.) How about the Googleguys? Or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook? Forget concerns about leaders under the age of 50. These guys were under the age of 30 when they took their now-famous companies to the top. And how about leaders of more conventional big businesses? Jeffrey Immelt was 46 when he took the reins from Jack Welch (who was also in his 40s when he became CEO of GE way back in the 1970s.) Ken Chenault of American Expresswas 46 when he became CEO. We’ve even seen it before in Presidential politics – consider Bill Clinton, JFK and Theodore Roosevelt, all in their 40s when they became President.

Why is business like politics?
CEOs, especially the ones running public companies, are constantly running for “re-election” just like their political counterparts. And in fact, it’s a lot easier to fire a CEO than impeach a President! Like the President of the United States, a CEO is constantly campaigning for favored initiatives and touting his platform "the company line.”


In my view, the best CEOs – as with the best U.S. Presidents – articulate a vision, identify a mission, and prudently shape goals as variables emerge, inspire employees (troops) and connect with consumers (citizens.)

They choose strong lieutenants, delegate authority and responsibility, keep a watchful eye and demand results. They are engaged and involved but they do not micromanage. And they listen carefully to shareholders (voters) so they can change course when necessary.

Despite what you may think at this point, I’m not necessarily arguing that Barack Obama should be President. I am not partisan, nor am I a political pundit. God knows, experience is valuable. And experience comes with time in the chair. We clearly have terrific CEOs in this country over the age of 50. (Hell, we have some terrific CEOs over the age of 75!)

We’re in the process of hiring our next President- our national CEO – right now. We have six weeks as a nation to demand specific policy ideas from both candidates and judge their efficacy (especially, how to pay for all the different plans and programs.) And lessons from this campaign are reflected in the workplace too. It is healthy, productive and often necessary to turn over the reins to the next generation. I’ve had the good fortune in my own career to have those reins turned over to me at times when I had something valuable to contribute in the service of progress for my industry.

From both sides now
I had the ability to drive innovation in my industry from important leadership positions which were granted at ages 27, 35 and 43. I was able to embrace technology and diversity and cultural change in a way that many of my elders were not. Now I’m admittedly over 50 and still trying to stay successful and innovative and relevant, but increasingly I strive to achieve that success by turning those proverbial reins over to younger leaders. Increasing global and national diversity, rapidly progressing technological change, and social evolution are challenges sometimes better tackled by people born after Jimmy Carter took office.

This November, we have a hiring decision between two CEOs – one 47, the other 72. So who’s going to be taking that oath in January? Can we trust a 47-year-old President with relatively little experience? Or, given a new century with massive challenges and changing conditions, can we afford not to?

Erik Sorenson is chief executive officer of Vault.com, Inc. Mr. Sorenson, 52, oversees the strategic direction of the global, New York-based media company. He is widely regarded as an expert on media strategy and industry trends, with experience spanning radio, local and network broadcast television, cable and syndicated TV, and the Internet. From 1998 through 2004, Mr. Sorenson served as president of the MSNBC cable news channel. He has won more than twenty Emmy awards as a writer, producer, and television executive.

Comments? Send them to executivecareers@cnbc.com