How old and experienced is an average CEO?

In the fall of 2012, I had a semi-interesting conversation with a kid I was going to graduate school with. At the time, I think I was 31; the other person in question was 24. We were both males. The topic was, essentially: when is our career peak? I try not to think about this too much, because while I like most of the jobs I’ve had to some extent, I still ultimately view work as a means to an end — as in, I don’t necessarily like to professionally define myself by it. Anyway: I’ve heard a male’s career peak starts around 47 — some have argued it’s much younger — so in this context, I was 9-16 years away from it and this other kid was 16-24 years away from it. Big difference in how you look at things if you’re really into work as a defining element, right?

I don’t think I’ll ever become a CEO, nor do I think I’d necessarily want to ever become a CEO, but … I do find some of the data around when people make that big career push interesting. There are obviously a lot of different ways one can become a CEO, and a lot of different-sized companies at which this can happen, so it’s hard to generalize across a wide variety of situations. That said, this is interesting: the CEO of Burger King is 33 right now. (He was a partner at 3G Capital Partners, which was a private equity firm that already owned about 70 percent of Burger King; he moved over to BK in 2010 and became CEO last year.) In the same article, you learn that — for the S&P 500 — the average CEO age is 57.

In Britain, an FTSE 100 (one public exchange) study saw the average CEO age at 55; for the FTSE 250, it was 52. Globally, an average CEO is 54, and probably went to Harvard, Cambridge or Oxford with a degree in economics or engineering. (Remember, that’s a global average.)

Interestingly, that same British study last year saw an average age of 46 on one exchange, meaning that are leaders are seemingly getting older — or the stats are being misread.

Think about this broadly, then: if your average career is from about 22 to 70 (let’s say that in the most generic sense possible), that’s 48 years of working. (Shudder.) If you are in that CEO boat and you get there around 54 (the average globally), that means you’ve been working 32 years before you get there — assuming you didn’t go back to school or anything (globally, many CEOs do have advanced degrees). Let’s say, then, that in an average global context, it takes about 30 years of work + 2-3 years of additional education to grab the top rung of the corporate ladder.

Well then:

  • 30 years is a long time, meaning that whether you’re job-hopping or sticking it out across 1-3 organizations, you need to play it pretty close to the vest for about three decades so as not to politically slip up.
  • Across 30 years, there’s a huge body of work on a person — which leads you to wonder what the central characteristics leading to promotion really are.
  • If you become a top dog at 54 and don’t intend to relinquish it, that means you might hold the post somewhere on order of 11-15 years. (That almost never happens; average CEO tenure is rising, but it’s still under about five years.)

I guess the biggest thing I took away from this statistical picture is that your career is ultimately a marathon and not a sprint; you have a lot of people you interact with (and need to impress / kiss the ass of / step on / etc.) over the arc of a career between the starting point and the potential peak point, and you basically need to contextualize yourself as rising throughout that entire period. That can be challenging, even for the very career-focused.

Here’s a final thing I wonder about: performance reviews are mostly a train wreck; at higher levels, they’re not even really done (and if they are, it’s more of a ‘scorecard’-type system). You could argue that people receiving performance reviews are probably still kinda down the chain — so another study that would be interesting is this: how many years after your start date are most future CEOs out of the general pool that gets evaluated annually in a haphazard way? I’d bet that no future CEO is still getting standard performance evaluations by 33; they’re probably onto something much bigger or being handled in a different way, etc.


Ted Bauer