The Role Age Plays in the Talent Game

Age is not a determinant of ability, but that’s not to say age should be of no consideration in the talent game. Debra Schwartzfarb of Kirk Palmer Associates offers five age-related factors that could make a difference.

March 15, 2019 – As e-commerce enters its second decade of maturity, a new generation of executives is entering the C-suite. Some of these professionals are self-made, having launched successful companies to become highly-visible 20- and-30-something CEOs. Others, prized for their digital fluency and new ways of thinking, are climbing the ranks in the fast track to the top.

“Conversations around the early success of these rising stars increasingly position younger generations as the stewards of the future and older generations as legacy leaders of the past,” said Debra Schwartzfarb, vice president at New York-based search firm Kirk Palmer Associates. “In this environment a misconception has taken hold: that age and ability are somehow linked.”

Such thinking is unfounded, Ms. Schwartzfarb said in a recent report. “In terms of ability, a professional’s capacity for performance, innovation and new skill development has much more to do with the individual than the number of years they’ve been in the workforce,’ she said. “If you’re struggling with this concept, consider a 30-year-old heavy smoker and a 60-year-old triathlete. Now weigh their ability to run a marathon.”

“Ability should be assessed on a basis separate from age,” said Ms. Schwartzfarb. “But that’s not to say age doesn’t matter. There are factors to consider that set generations apart. By seeking to understand these differences, companies can build more effective leadership teams that leverage the strengths and diverse viewpoints a well-balanced workforce can bring.”

Five Takeaways

So when does age matter? Ms. Schwartzfarb said one should consider the following:

1. Runway

Companies seeking to hire tomorrow’s leaders increasingly cite “runway” as a top priority, meaning they want candidates with a sufficiently-long stretch of career still ahead. There’s an issue with that. The pool of candidates with more than 20 years of career left is increasingly comprised of Millennials – a generation often maligned for its lack of employer loyalty.

Debra Schwartzfarb joined Kirk Palmer Associates in 2011 with more than two decades of HR and store operations experience from Macy’s, Gap Inc. and Toys “R” Us. Drawing on this background in talent management, succession planning and employee relations, she helps a wide range of specialty retail and department store clients hire precisely-matched leadership talent.

Ms. Schwartzfarb said that “in this context, companies need to clarify what they really need when they say ‘runway.’ If the answer is tenure-oriented, then candidates in later stages of their careers might be better suited to the task of sticking around.”

2. Leadership

Unlike skills, experience can’t be taught. It is gained over the course of a career and the longer the career, the more robust an executive’s collective successes, failures and learnings will be.

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“A tenured leader adds qualities such as wisdom, judgement, institutional knowledge and real-world context to a leadership team, and without it many younger companies struggle to scale beyond a certain size,” said Ms. Schwartzfarb. “A versatile leadership team blends rising stars with seasoned veterans who’ve ‘done it before’ and can help to steady the ship through internal and external turbulence as companies grow and evolve.”

3. Generosity

Younger executives with accelerated careers tend to be driven, dedicated and have something to prove. While energized and hard-working, these professionals are less likely to dedicate time to developing and mentoring others.

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“Mature executives may be more generous with their time, eager to impart wisdom gained over a successful career and cede recognition to others,” Ms. Schwartzfarb said. “A healthy leadership team blends drivers and developers in different stages of the professional lifecycle where cross-generational mentoring can occur.”

4. Representation

“As with other forms of diversity, building a generationally diverse workforce provides critical representation for the population of customers a company serves,” Ms. Schwartzfarb said. “Examples abound of missteps where companies fail to connect (or worse) with consumers because their internal workforce doesn’t reflect their external audience.”

Related: How to Accommodate Millennials as Workplace Demographics Shift

The largest adult population in the U.S. is comprised of Boomers (born 1946-1964), though Millennials (born 1981-1996) are predicted to take the lead in 2019. In addition, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers in the U.S. as the largest living generation, according to population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau. “A workforce that under-represents any key adult population is missing out on critical insights that only balanced representation can provide,” Ms. Schwartzfarb said.

5. Perspective

“Fast tracking next-gen talent to the leadership level can be highly effective for companies seeking new ways of thinking about products and services,” said Ms. Schwartzfarb. “Younger talent, less familiar with way things have ‘always been done,’ brings a fresh perspective suited to challenging long-held assumptions and identifying innovation barriers.”

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On the flip side, she pointed out that seasoned executives with a repository of career successes and failures understand why things are the way they are. This context can help companies “see around the corner” and take calculated risks that sidestep foreseeable setbacks.


Whether hiring or promoting, companies should ask:

  • Which skills and experiences are needed for this role, age aside?
  • Who’s included our consideration set, and who has been excluded? For what reason?

“Setting aside unconscious and conscious assumptions linking age and ability helps to ensure companies: a) get the best talent for the role and b) build well-rounded executives team poised to tackle short and long-term organizational needs,” Ms. Schwartzfarb said.

Related: Baby Boomers, Millennials and the Value of Mentorship

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor; and Andrew W. Mitchell, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media

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