A Crash Course In Leadership For 20-Something CEOs

Five essential lessons for today's crop of young leaders.

Traditionally, leaders spent 20 or more years rising through the ranks before they made it to the corner office. But we’re seeing a rise in CEOs in their 20s and 30s, who either founded their own company or rose quickly through the ranks of an established organization.

Discussions on the topic of 20- and 30- something CEOs usually focus on the creativity of youth, versus experience gained through decades on the job. But these attributes aren’t mutually exclusive.

As a father of two sons, I approach giving advice to any young person with some trepidation. But after four decades at Deloitte, I have unique insight into the factors that determine whether a senior leader of any age sinks or swims.

1. Listen to the right people. Ignore the rest.

Younger CEOs need a whole lot of confidence in themselves and their mission. You likely have very few resources. And there’s a good chance you’re going to fail.

It’s a fact; some people won’t understand your vision. Some people will think they’re being helpful by telling you to give up. At the same time, mentors will never be more important in your career than they are right now. Mentors help us look at problems differently, and see things in us that we can’t see ourselves.

One of my most important mentors was instrumental in pushing me out of my comfort zone and opening my eyes to the possibilities for my career. Every young leader needs someone like that.

2. Be tough on problems, not on people.

CEOs need to be resilient and have the courage to make difficult decisions. But some leaders can make the mistake of being “tough” not just on the problems facing their business, but also their people.

To foster long term respect––with their people, their clients, and their management team––20- and 30-something CEOs need to inspire, rather than terrify. This isn’t being “soft.” The tone you set will reverberate through the culture of your organization. I remember a time when a client was upset with how a particular situation had been handled. Losing my cool or raising my voice with the team responsible wasn’t going to do anything to help the issue at hand.

Instead, I worked side-by-side with the leaders on both teams to work through the problem, to repair the client relationship, and to get things back on track.

3. Continue to take measured risks, even when the stakes get higher.

One thing I love about startups is how their leaders have the courage to take risks, knowing these are essential to drive the company forward.

My son Matt Salzberg (a young CEO in his own right, he leads Brooklyn-based startup Blue Apron), shared a concept with me that sums it up. He said “An entrepreneur is someone who jumps from a plane without a parachute, and figures out how to build one on the way down.”

But as organizations grow, they have more to lose, they can become more cautious, and they can become slower to innovate.

Not many businesses stay at the top for more than 100 years, or even 50. The reason Deloitte continues to succeed is because we’re continually anticipating the big challenges and opportunities that our clients will be facing in the future. This fuels the development of more innovative services and delivery models.

4. Evolve as a leader while you swing for the fences.

Be ready to adapt your approach, style and strategy throughout your company’s lifecycle.

One of the biggest challenges cited by younger CEOs is managing large teams of people. So start focusing on getting better at this right now, before you experience growing pains.

All CEOs must continue to evolve their style and approach throughout their career.

5. Plan in quarters, but think in years.

Launching a startup requires a long-term dream or vision, but is mostly measured in small increments. Funding rounds, product launches, perhaps looking ahead to the buyout, or IPO.

Younger CEOs need a plan to take their organization well into the future, not just as far as an IPO.

When I was U.S. CEO, I managed the business quite closely between each internal reporting period, but I was (and remain!) just as passionate about building on our global strategy and vision for the future.

I can’t fully understand how our organization will need to adapt in the next 50 or 100 years. But five or 10 years is a great place to start.

I’m really inspired to watch the careers of younger CEOs unfold. I think in the past, younger and older CEOs have viewed each other almost as different species. Moving forward, I hope we can create closer connections where we can learn from each other and become more effective, inspirational, and innovative leaders as a result.

--Barry Salzberg is global CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited and proud to have recently started writing for the LinkedIn Influencers blog. You can follow his posts on LinkedIn.

[Image: Flickr user Robert Gaskin]

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