Young CEOs bring energy and freshness... they also prove that experience and maturity do not necessarily come only with age.

Anjana Chandramouly

There is no doubt that the world is becoming younger, and young CEOs bring in a lot of freshness and energy... I have been asked whether young CEOs are better than old CEOs. It is not so much the age that matters as much as leadership competence and potential... " That was Wipro's Azim Premji speaking at the CII-Partnership Summit on `Developing Leaders in an Uncertain Future' held in Bangalore some years ago.

Sriram, Sai Kumar, Ravi Kiran, and Manoj Jain would definitely agree with this. All of them are in their mid-30s, and heading their respective companies.

For 37-year-old R. Sriram, Managing Director, SAAG RR, attitude and self-confidence matter the most. Manoj Jain (35), CEO of Pipal Research, feels that while age matters to some extent, a combination of competence, knowledge, experience and leadership skills are required to lead a group or an organisation.

Age alone is not the criterion for judging people, says Ravi Kiran (37), CEO South Asia, Starcom Media Vest Group. "If age is read as experience and maturity, it does matter. That said, some of us mature faster than others," he says.

B. Sai Kumar (35), CEO, TV18 Media Network, believes that experience comes only with age; one has to just accept it and "ensure that you work on an attitude that allows for learning and lets you `take in' everything around you," he says.

Sandeep Kanwar of TalentPro, a Chennai-based recruitment firm, says it makes sense to consider age in sectors like manufacturing, but in the sunrise sectors it doesn't really matter.

The age factor

Sai Kumar was 31 when he took over as CEO. How does it feel to be at the helm of affairs at such a young age? It does feel good, concedes the 35-year-old head honcho, but only for a day or two... "Maybe three days if you are close to a weekend. Finally, it's all about better benchmarks and results." For Ravi Kiran, who became the Managing Director of Starcom, India - West & South at 37, it's a humbling feeling to lead a large team and steer the company. "It's also very energising."

It means an overwhelming sense of responsibility for Jain, who founded Pipal Research and became the CEO at 32, as the "buck stops" with him. Something that Sriram who became CEO at 25 definitely understands; he likens managing a company to running a family. "One has to learn to adapt... to deal with people above and below one's age." It helps to have one's ego under check.

What does becoming a young CEO entail?

"You have to mature quickly in your judgment, without giving up your enthusiasm and impatience. You also have to earn the respect of people who are more experienced than you, to be able to hire, retain and work with them." Simultaneously, one has to remember to respect experience and what it can bring to the table.

Tanwar says that ultimately it's all about maturity, as this would help young managers and CEOs in the long run. On handling older employees, he feels it's a non-issue as long as the young leaders respect people for their work, position and treat them properly more so in public interactions.

When less is more

Jain says being relatively younger helped him to be fearless and take bold decisions. However, age per se cannot constitute an advantage for an aspiring CEO. Leadership capabilities and inherent intelligence, along with experience are implicitly required, he says. A younger CEO should boast a spike in intellect, people connection and client relationships to fill the experience gap. "Clients, vendors and team members are often relatively more supportive if a younger CEO exhibits potential," he adds.

Sriram says the biggest advantage in taking over at a young age is the ability to bounce back from failures and rectify them. "Most of all, facing different situations at this age prepares a person for various challenges in a competitive business environment."

Recalling his initial days as CEO, Ravi Kiran says, "I was forward looking, positive and excited about the future." As the face of the organisation, there is little room for error in personal behaviour, as people "follow the examples you set. You have to be careful about what you say, your tone and body language. You have to understand each individual and help him/her grow."

Stating that age is not as big a tangible advantage as is commonly made out to be, Sai Kumar says, "You could get burnt out in two years and lose the edge of being younger! I don't think age is too much of a factor at all... but for some reason, there is a big hype surrounding it."

Room for burnout?

Burnout comes from overdoing the routine and not pacing yourself, reasons Ravi Kiran. "Fortunately, I do something new all the time, learning from people around me. I think it's our curiosity that stops us from being burnt out."

Jain admits that there is an initial struggle in establishing credibility, as the job requires "intense efforts, reducing time with family. I spend quite a bit of time travelling; so I take vacations to spend quality time with my family." And, he takes time out for himself even during business travel by reading on flights, keeping in touch with his family on the phone and working out at hotel gyms. When he is not travelling, Jain makes it a point to have dinner at home with his family, and then catching up on work at his home-office. "Finding that work-life balance is critical."

Ravi Kiran says that everybody makes sacrifices, not just CEOs. "Some of us, who don't want to make personal sacrifices, define accomplishment differently. I don't live in a big family, have no kids, and have a limited social circle. Since my wife works in a related field, she understands the workaholic streak in me." However he hopes to take more vacations, spend time with his wife, visit his mother more often, cultivate a hobby or two, and do some social work.

Achievements... and beyond

Ask them about their achievements, and these young leaders say that their journey is far from over. Ravi Kiran admits he is busy, not satisfied. "There are moments of joy and sense of achievement every once in a while." Satisfaction for Jain comes from the fact that he started something of his own. The security of a pay cheque every month makes it hard to create something of your own, he says.

Sriram wants to create a "great company" that will provide value-based solutions to the customer and a safe and secure workplace for employees. The future is in being able to work without geographical boundaries, he says. He may have achieved a lot in terms of designation, but as far as business achievements and contribution to society go, there is still a long way ahead, he adds.

It's not the designation or money that keeps him going, says Sai Kumar, but things like "watching the channels that TV18 runs, seeing a brilliant salesperson in the team" and so on.

Jain is motivated by his company's award-winning product, Pipal Answers, which offers an alternative means to procure corporate intelligence. "Such innovative ideas inspire me to create breakthrough products."

Addressing attrition rates

Increasing job opportunities in a competitive global market lead to increased attrition rates for companies. How do the young leaders address this issue?

Sriram attaches importance to welfare schemes that demonstrate that the company cares for its employees. Companies should identify special skills in employees and offer challenging jobs in those areas. "Once these are taken care of, I believe the monetary aspects will automatically fall in place."

Besides the all-important money, Sai Kumar believes that "workplace culture and atmosphere are big loyalty builders." Jain agrees that organisation culture is a great retaining factor, but places equal importance on respecting talent and rewarding performance.

Ravi Kiran feels that rather than demanding loyalty from employees, companies must express trust in them in order to earn their loyalty. Money is not everything, he adds.

Challenges

* Constantly innovate, upgrade

* Set goals and get the best out of people

* Define and continuously fine-tune a vision for the organisation

* Foresee future market and business realities

* Remain globally competitive

* Get people to accept another point of view

* Harness the team to achieve short-term goals

* Effectively handle sceptics and delays

* Think long-term

* Convert weakness to strengths

* Prioritise

* Be more open, patient and accommodating

* Learn as much from each day as possible

* Establish credibility

* Develop ability to listen.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 25, 2006)
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