The Plight of the 50+ Tech Sector Executive

May 6, 2008

The plight of the 50+ executive is anything but hopeless. Here are a few things they can do:

1. Use a Rifle Rather than a Shotgun
Many executives summarize their 30 years of experience with the all-inclusive label ‘generalist’. Such a strategy is usually designed to maximize their range of options in the market. While sound in theory, such a strategy is dilutive in effect. Organizations tend to hire executives to address specific issues not general ones. Presenting oneself as a generalist creates the impression the the executive is average at everything rather than exceptional at anything. It confuses the market on how best to deploy the executive and sets them up for disappointment.

Instead, executives should put away the shotgun and pull out the rifle. They should pick their spots, be honest with whether sales, marketing, channel management or business development is where they really shine. If they have worked for both Canadian firms and US subsidiaries, they should be honest with which prefer and why. These are different beasts and the likelihood is high that one fits a given individual better than the other. Executives should select a business context (turnarounds, early stage etc) in which they have had the greatest impact and then focus on those opportunities. After working for over a quarter century 50+ executives should know themselves by now and use that to their advantage.
Finally, they should make sure their resumes are tight and speak to where they want to go, not just where they have been.

2. Be Proactive
If executives believe they are confronted with bias, they should deal with it head on. They should discuss what continues to drive them, what the employer can expect in terms of effort, energy etc. They should yank the issue out from under the table and put it on the table, out in the open. They should take control of the issue and use it as a positive rather than negative.
The catch, of course, is that this requires executives to be honest with themselves. If they are applying to run sales for a start-up they should be sure they are really up for the travel intensive, high-energy life that awaits them. If they really want to be the CEO of a company again, they should be certain that they are willing tand able to pay the price that such a role demands. If they are up to the task, they should tell the potential employer, and tell them why. If not, they should save themselves and everyone else some valuable time.

3. Look Young
I recently had a breakfast interview with a 60 year old CEO candidate who had impressed me in our telephone conversation. He had great credentials and sounded exceptionally well-suited to my client’s needs. When he arrived for our scheduled meeting, I was struck by his slovenly appearance. At least 100 pounds overweight, wearing an ill-fitting suit and a tie that was neither straight nor matching, he looked sloppy, tired, and extremely unhealthy. This contrasts with another candidate for that search who was also 60 years old but fit, fashionably dressed, and energetic. The differences in marketability of each candidate was palpable.

Everyone knows that while companies are legally obligated to make hiring decisions on the basis of objective, ‘best-fit’ criteria, most do not. Subjectively always creeps into, if not dominates, decision-making and candidates never know for certain which variables tip the scales. Appearance is but one subjective variable, yet one that candidates can largely control. If executives want to be considered for a role that clearly requires energy and stamina, expect that the employer is going to be assessing whether the candidates’ appearance supports or betrays their words. The message is stay healthy, look healthy, sell healthy. Have an updated rather than backdated look. Consider new glasses, new haircut and new suit.

While advising candidates to attend to cosmetic issues may ring shallow, there are now books out there with titles such as How Not to Look Old and Staging your Comeback which speak specifically to why it should not be overlooked.

4. Keep Learning/Stay Current
It can be argued that companies don’t want young people as much as they want people who will keep with the times.

High performers continue to improve and learn. If executives do not want to be viewed as over-the-hill they should make it clear that they are still climbing the hill. They should take courses, stay active in the business community, remain current in their field, learn new things, try new things, use new things, and be curious. In other words, project a youthful attitude.

5. Work at it
There is a large community of companies out there, all potential employers. Only some however are prominently displayed in the few tech sector directories on the market. The vast majority of others are specialty or vertically focused businesses which care little whether anyone outside of their customers know that they exist. They may produce specialty software for transit companies, seismological equipment, or communications gear for police. What they share however is that they are all growing, and at any given time, looking for help. Many are also what I would call orphans. They are companies without a large community of competitors from which to hire talent and as a result they tend to look outside their sector for candidates.

Finding them is work that requires digging and focus. But they are there and the fruits will go to those who work at solving the problem of how to find and engage with them. Such a willingness and discipline is unrelated to age.