A friend of mine in the credit union movement, who will remain nameless, is being considered for a President/CEO level position within the industry. This friend has all of the tools needed to be a success in this new role: a resume full of accomplishments in the credit union space, top notch education, executive management experience, an out-of-this world industry reputation, a magnetic personality, and tireless work ethic. The only problem: this person is 29 years old.
Now, we all know that age is not supposed to be a factor in hiring decisions...but isn't it anyway? I mean, how often is an 80-year old considered for an executive marketing position? How many 22-year olds can qualify for a job that requires "10-15 years experience"? Ageism - right or wrong, overt or covert - simply exists.
I'll be the last person on this planet to argue against the value of work experience, especially as it applies to the position in question. I am a much better credit union employee today than I was when I started 4.5 years ago. I also know that I could do a much better job than many people do in positions that require the aforementioned "10-15 years of experience".
This situation begs the questions: Is there an age that is "too young" for a credit union CEO? Is there an age that is "too old" for a credit union CEO?
I'll answer this in a couple conflicting ways - first, with an obligatory sports analogy. If you were starting a sports franchise, would you rather have LeBron James (24, 3 years of experience) or Michael Jordan (45, 15 years of experience)? Not fair, right? Athleticism is so integral in basketball that your choice would be dramatically skewed in favor of the younger player, James. In making such a choice, you must consider the unique requirements for the position you're trying to fill. In this case, basketball, youth takes precedence.
So, what are the unique requirements of a credit union President/CEO? I think this position needs someone who can passionately inspire members and staff to believe in their credit union and the credit union movement. Someone who has an uncanny ability to analyze complex data and make tough decisions based on said data. Someone with charisma, confidence, and earned respect. Someone whose accomplishments, both in academics and business, demonstrate a proven track record of success and hard work.
Many of these qualities (like charisma, education, and passion) are age independent. I would also argue that what is suitable for one credit union executive position may or may not be suitable for another. A highly educated, energetic President, for example, may or may not be a great fit for a conservative credit union with a blue collar field of membership. The perfect fit, by that criteria, could be any age 25-95.
But what about the other qualifications? Do you have to be 40, 50, 60, or 70 to be able to earn the respect of employees, members, and volunteer directors? Could you be 30? How about 80? How many years of experience do you need to be able to demonstrate strong analytical skill? How long does your track record of success need to be to pique the interest of the people making hiring decisions? 10 years? 20 years? 30 years?
Age has even become a huge issue in the political landscape, with the likely Democrat and Republican nominees being nearly 25 years apart (McCain 71, Obama 46). I have heard arguments that McCain is too old just as often as I've heard complaints that Obama is too young and inexperienced. Fair? Nope. Legitimate concerns? Possibly.
Here's the deal. The average age of credit union members is 47. The average age of credit union CEOs in the $70-99 million asset size range is 50. The average age of credit union CEOs with over $400 million in assets is 55. That's a view from 10,000 feet, though. Some credit unions are happy to serve an aging population. Their members, I'd argue, may very well prefer to do business with a credit union run by one of their contemporaries. Likewise, credit unions with a younger membership base may very well be wise to hire a younger CEO, one who understands their needs, wants, and desires in a way that older leaders may not.
And to me, that's what it's all about. Boards should hire the person who best fits into their vision for the future of the credit union. Often, I'd agree, that's the credit union professional, 40-55 years old, who has 15-25 years of experience within the movement. That said, I have met too many young, extremely qualified credit union employees under 35 who could make significant contributions at the highest levels in their organization. I have also met many CEOs who have worked well into their 60's and 70's whose ability to innovate and lead effectively never wanes. My point is this: don't hire based on age. Hire based on an individual's ability to move your financial institution in the direction the Board desires. And if your Board doesn't have that vision, that direction, your needs run deeper than just a vacant CEO position.