Saturday, February 9, 2008

Its Time for Youth

At 38, my youth is well behind me. On the football field or down the hairdressers, I just don’t cut the mustard any more.

The only good thing about the end of youth is that it will be a massive boost to my career prospects.

For ours is a sector where the average senior CEO is 53 and a huge `Do Not Enter’ sign hangs above the door to anyone under the age of 35.

Let me give you a few facts: Of 638 CEO respondents to ACEVO’s 2006 survey of third sector leaders, only twenty-eight were aged 25-34.

That’s 5%.

Of these, only seven were managing organisations with budgets over £1m.

That makes for just 1% of senior sector leaders under the age of 35. We have, in effect, been telling Britain’s brightest young people that their talents are not wanted.

Why does this matter? Firstly, because its wrong. In a sector that’s supposed to champion diversity, we’re excluding young people from top job on grounds of their age. This is indefensible and, now, illegal.

Secondly, its stupid. Rather than coming into the third sector, talented young people go to the private sector or the civil service. Here they are valued, coached, trained and groomed for leadership by a young age. Look at Next plc’s Simon Wolfson who joined the company at 22 and made CEO by 32. You see nothing of this sort in our sector.

At 32, Wolfson would be lucky to be running a provincial housing association, never mind one of the UK’s largest retailers.

Thirdly, it is short-sighted. The numbers suggest we are heading for a big leadership crisis within the third sector. The Baby Boom generation of sector CEOs will all be gone in a decade. 71% of these have no natural successor within their organisation. Our response is to fly in senior people from other sectors in late career. ACEVOs 2006 survey says cites 80% CEOs already coming from other sectors.

What kind of message is this giving to younger people in the third sector?

So, what can we do? I propose a five-point plan of action.

Market the third sector to young people. The super-charities (the 2% which take two-thirds of sector income) plus NCVO and ACEVO need to get together and properly market the third sector as an appealing destination for young people.

They did it with teaching for God’s sake, why can’t it be done for charities or social enterprises?

Recruit more graduates. More organisations need to do what we’re doing at Speaking Up and take on talented graduates straight from college. At the Milk Round we need to be joining KPMG and Glaxo SmithCline in searching for the cream of the crop.

Recruit on potential not experience. Over the years I have met scores of brilliant young people who have found it impossible to get third sector roles due to job specs requiring ridiculous levels of experience.

At Speaking Up we have dropped experience requirements for many jobs. We prefer to look at what people have ahead of them. This is a green light for younger applicants we have found.

Invest in Fast Stream programs to develop future leaders. The Civil Service do it. Top plcs do it. We need to do it too. Future leaders should be identified in their early 20s and fast-tracked into leadership roles by their 30s.

As a sector, we need to get much more clued up about talent management (spotting it, attracting it, developing it, retaining it). Its simply not on our radar yet.

Appoint some younger CEOs to top jobs NOW. 97% of Chairs of Trustees boards are white and 70% are men. The nation’s trustee boards need to stop recruiting to type (Male, Pale, Stale) and entrust some of our brightest young leaders with top jobs in the sector.

A cohort of younger people leading the third sector’s giants would send a huge positive message to young people inside and beyond the sector..

As I edge closer to 40, and my inevitable Harley Davidson moment, I hope that we start taking some bigger risks on youth.

The exciting thing is that they are there in-waiting. Last week, I squeezed in to a get-together of young CEOs supported by ACEVO (one of the few organisations that walks its talk when it comes to developing young talent).

Within this group sit 25 of the brightest young things in our sector. Most of them lead smaller organisations and are proud to do so. Yet without some change, many will not get the opportunity to lead on the big stage.

Not until they are a lot older anyway.

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