Does Management Ability Improve With Age?

Last Updated Apr 15, 2009 2:40 PM EDT

It's a simple enough question: does your management capability improve with age? On the surface, the answer would appear to be yes. With age comes experience, with experience comes maturity, perspective, and ultimately, wisdom. And that should make you a better manager, right?

Different, yes. Better? Well, I'm not so sure.

Age certainly doesn't make you a better entrepreneur. The founders of the great companies of the internet age - Amazon, eBay, Google, and Yahoo - were all youngsters at the time, right? The same is true of CEOs we now think of as stalwarts who grew their companies into empires: Dell's Michael Dell (founder at 19), Microsoft's Bill Gates (20), Oracle's Larry Ellison (33), Sun's Scott McNealy (28).

And it's not just about technology, either. Howard Schultz, who started the current version of Starbucks at age 34, breaks that correlation. So does Richard Hayne, who founded Urban Outfitters at 22 and is still chairman, 39 years later. Mature industries may simply be more resistant to youth in high ranking positions.

On the other hand, Andy Grove - credited with making Intel the powerhouse it is today - became president of the chip giant at 43. And is there any doubt that Steve Jobs 2.0 is a far better manager than the youth who cofounded Apple? That improvement can only be attributable to experience and maturity, right?

Turnarounds are probably the exclusive domain of the experienced and mature. Lou Gerstner became CEO at IBM at age 51 and Mark Hurd joined HP at 48. Lee Iacocca took the reins at Chrysler at 54. I don't know of any great turnarounds by young CEOs. We'll see how Carol Bartz - now 61 - does at Yahoo.

And for better or worse, the median age for S&P 500 CEOs is a ripe 55, according to executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

But there may be a point of diminishing returns. Can experience and wisdom overcome loss of energy, passion for the business, or hunger to succeed? While that may not be solely about age, it certainly relates to time, and the two do unequivocally flow hand-in-hand and in the same direction, right?

We've also seen management effectiveness diminish over time and changing conditions with some of the above-named folks, right? Some executives become more dysfunctional, or perhaps their inherent dysfunctionality becomes more pronounced with age.

All that said, I'm still not sure of the answer, which would seem to indicate little or no correlation. I'd love to hear your thoughts, examples, stories, anything that may shed some light on a complex topic that is not well understood but affects us all ... with no exceptions.