Anyone who has spent the past 20 years climbing the corporate ladder in the hope of scoring the top job, be warned: you may already have missed the boat.
A few weeks ago, a 28-year-old was appointed to run Leroy Merlin France, one of the largest DIY chains in Europe owned by the reclusive Mulliez family.
Agathe Monpays’ promotion stirred a fierce debate in French media. She could only have won the job thanks to connections with the family, suggested many commentators. Otherwise, why would a 28-year-old be put in charge of a company that employs about 30,000 people and generates close to €10bn a year in sales?
But no. Leroy Merlin insists Monpays has no connection whatsoever to the family. She has risen to the top on her own merits after barely seven years with the company.
That type of prejudice is familiar to other youthful business leaders. “When people tell me I am too young to be a CEO, I ask them if they think it is OK to have a 40-year-old president?” says Marie Sermadiras who was appointed head of luxury packaging group Cosfibel at the age of 32.
Apart from a few exceptions, it is still rare for those in their 20s and early 30s to win the top job at a big company unless they have either created the business or are part of the founding family.
So it is unlikely that dozens of other companies will rush to follow Leroy Merlin’s lead. But Monpays’ promotion suggests things are beginning to change in Europe’s boardrooms, as companies look to harness a diversity of views and experience as insurance against a more volatile and uncertain future.
For the first time in years, the average age of a chief executive is falling. Last year, it tumbled from more than 56 to 53, says Jane Stevenson, vice-chair of headhunters Korn Ferry. “That may not be 28, but it has been 57-ish forever,” she adds.
Other studies from Korn Ferry and executive recruiter Heidrick & Struggles show that the number of first-time CEOs is rising sharply, while board seats going to directors under 50 increased by 50 per cent in Europe in 2022.
Michael Birshan, co-head of McKinsey’s strategy and corporate finance practice, believes that the traditional chief executive candidate with decades of management experience in the same sector may be outdated. “The past is less the prologue [to a top job] than it used to be,” he says.
Perhaps because the experiences of the past 20 years are less relevant to the next 20. Those managing businesses in recent decades have been operating in a world of growing prosperity and unprecedented peace.
The next generation will have to deal with a world where young people are likely to be less well off than their parents, where a war is already raging on Europe’s eastern borders and where inflation is rampant. And then there is technology. Artificial intelligence has finally come to the masses, and no one yet knows how that will change the way we work and live. The only certainty is uncertainty.
Florian Delmas rose to be head of the French operations of juice maker Andros at just 31 and became CEO of the group two years later. He says the big advantage of youth is that it is “positively naive” at a time of great change. That “gives us much more energy to think, do and build differently, with new perspectives and goals”.
In that context, Leroy Merlin may have been wise in its choice. Not just because younger generations are more comfortable with technology, but because values inside and outside the business have shifted, says Eliza Filby, an intergenerational historian and corporate consultant.
Announcing the appointment, Leroy Merlin’s parent company, Adeo, praised not just Monpays’ commercial and management skills, but “her interpersonal skills”. A generation ago, interpersonal skills were hardly a requirement for the top job. But now CEOs are expected to be team players, says Stevenson. “It is a different way of leading,” she says. Inclusiveness and self-awareness are increasingly important.
That is not a mindset that is exclusive to youth. And it would be foolish to suggest that experience is now irrelevant. But perhaps a diversity of experience is more important now.
The big question for Leroy Merlin is how it will support its talented new CEO. If Monpays were an entrepreneur, she would be allowed to make mistakes and start again, with little damage to her reputation. But as the precociously young chief executive of one of France’s most beloved brands, she may not have that luxury.