Young executives at RLJ, and at large in corporate America, are increasingly prized for their willingness to take risks and be innovative. These up-and-comers came of age in their careers amid economic uncertainty that some say has made them more fearless than their not-so-young counterparts.
“We have hired some of the best and the brightest. And, on many occasions, they are young, aggressive people who are looking to work for a company where they can add value,” said Chairman Robert L. Johnson, who has started numerous ventures under RLJ since selling Black Entertainment Television to Viacom in 2001 for $3 billion.
There is an “energy that they bring, an openness to new ideas, willingness to take risks and learn from them,” Johnson said.
That can be especially true in industries such as financial services, where a proven ability to make money has long been a key to advancement, said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, director of Harvard University’s Advanced Leadership Initiative.
“Financial services, especially the sales and deal sides, have always favored high-energy younger managers, who tend to get rich fast, burn out and retire young,” she said. “Whether they all can be called leaders in the sense of setting long-term direction, creating new strategy ... is another question altogether.”
Indeed, some wonder whether they have enough experience to navigate turns in the business cycle the way more seasoned professionals can.
Still, John Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said he believes young professionals have a better chance of being groomed for the C-suite these days than prior to the downturn.
“The enormous amount of downsizing during the recession and in the aftermath wiped out a whole generation of people in finance,” he said. As the economy rebounds, more companies are “filling that void with a whole new generation and that’s helping them keep down cost and develop talent.”
That opportunity does not always flow equally. There remains a glaring disparity in the number of minorities represented in that new generation of leadership, said Mike Bush, president of The Minority Resource, a career coaching outfit.
“People basically hire people they know. So it’s still a long slog for most minorities to get ahead,” he said.
Johnson agrees that interpersonal relationships weigh heavily on hiring decisions in middle and senior management, leaving scores of talented minorities out in the cold.
“The wealth of this nation should be managed in the same way that the wealth of this nation is created. A lot of the money that comes into these big funds comes from the 401ks and mutual fund investments of minority employees,” he said. “The Harvard graduates that populate RLJ are the same kind of people that could be working at some of these big Wall Street firms and investment houses.”