Stuck in the Middle: Is Ageism derailing your move from Director to VP?

Posted May 25, 2010 in Career Management, Latest News & Insights

A disturbing pattern may be coming to a job opportunity near you.  For first wave Gen X leaders born between ’64 and ‘74, a new twist on the old “you need work experience to get a job, but to get the experience you need the job” tail chaser seems to be emerging. This time it’s called “to get that VP role, you need to be in a VP role”.

In the past 2 months I’ve had multiple conversations with Director-level execs who are in their early 40’s.  They’ve all gone along the lines of this: “well, I wanted to apply for the job but my [boss, president, headhunter] told me that I needed VP level experience to be considered as an applicant.”

What the what??

Here’s the issue as I see it:  Given the massive number of baby boomers who climbed through the ranks ahead of Gen X and Gen Y, many of them were able to hit VP level roles in the 30’s… and then they sat there… and sat there… and sat there.  This essentially allowed very few Gen X leaders the opportunity to move beyond the Director level which has essentially wiped out a decade of progressive leadership experience amongst this group.

And, here’s the kicker.  Now that the leadership ranks are opening up a little, organizations are looking down into their leadership bench to see who they should be plucking out to put on the “succession” track to fill these senior level roles and they may be jumping over the late 30’s to 40 somethings in favour of what used to be “high potential” twenty years ago.

Think about it.  If you, as a 43 year old Director, are interviewing with a 55 year old who made VP at 35, do you think that there may be a little bit of age bias about your abilities going on?  Afterall, shouldn’t you already be a VP by now???

Titles are funny things.  They don’t seem to matter until they matter.  If you’re trying to make the leap from Director to VP and are over 36 or so, here’s the memo:  the game has changed.  Now that you’re no longer the “fresh faced up and comer” you may need to think differently about how you position yourself to climb the next rung.

For those under 40ish, my humble advice is to rack up the experience and titles you need to get the opportunities you deserve in the next decade.  After 40, you stop being “cute” and the windows of opportunity seem to become harder to find (which albeit may be somewhat self-inflicted.  As my friend Stephanie says “F**K you, I’m forty” which certainly limits your desire to voluntarily make bad career moves leaving fewer opportunities on the table.)

Talent is talent and shouldn’t be defined by age.  It’s a good reminder for all of us to be aware of our own biases and what expectations we’re placing on those around us.

Happy leading!

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