Is Gray Hair a Prerequisite For CEO Status?

I have the luxury of visiting some great places due to business travel. I often travel in groups of two or three to visit distributed team members or visit customers. One way to assess execution of headquarter corporate strategy is to visit distributed teams for health checks. As I reflect on all the places I’ve traveled one question continues to be unanswered.

Is gray hair a prerequisite for achieving CEO suite status?


Picture the scenario:

A colleague holds a position that is at a lower level in the organization than another colleague (me). We often travel together to meet our distributed teams. Our schedule is full with meetings on business updates and project status. When the day ends and networking begins, I am always flooded with the same question. Why are you at the executive level and your colleague is not. Your hair is not gray.

I’m so used to this line of questioning that I do not hesitant prior to answering. I answer on autopilot. I also anticipate the next line of questioning which turns into a form of network speed dating. Who do you know (because you must know someone)? What career decisions did you make? Who gave you that advice? And again, who do you know?

My next move is to review my bio, talk through career lessons, career failures, people leadership and then listening.

It is 2017 and the biggest mystery of the day is why I am sitting at the table and my gray-haired peer is not! At this point repeating my qualifications is a moot point.


What is your approach when you must lead as an outsider?

What does it mean to be an outsider? It means that your presence, style, the system that you represent is not understood and maybe not accepted. The lack of understanding and acceptance are driven by a variety of reasons but I believe the most pronounced drivers are when peculiar journeys of success are not appreciated. This lack of appreciation generates from a microscopic view that success is dependent on a predetermined set of tools and sequence to acquire. This view refers to those whose paper-selves’ are industry standard. Everyone is disappointed when the reality arrives to work on Monday. The saying is true, “I am not getting what I paid for.”

A recent experience at work brought this memory back to me. I recalled how I felt in the moment. I began to second guess my expertise, my style. I also became less effective as I tried to define insider status. I was spending more time on noise than I was working. I had to get the idea of conformity out of my head. I started asking myself smart questions.

Is my style effective? 
Are my decisions leading to change and driving outcomes?
Am I able to attract and retain talent?
Am I quirky? 
Am I respectful of people and do I grow talent?

This lesson taught me if I am going to self-assess my leadership style then I need to do it against a measurement system that is transformational vs measurement system that resists change.

I remembered an old saying from my high school basketball coach as a freshman, “you may be junior in years but you’ve played a lot of basketball. You have miles on those seniors.” Fast forward to corporate world this saying is so applicable. Work miles were acquired and relationship currency was spent to arrive at my current professional state. My advice to you is to not let anyone diminish the significance of your success. Celebrate you!


How do you manage your style with truth vs conformity?

Authenticity is the best path in my view. Stay true to yourself and respect others. It is possible to effectively lead using your personality. Learn the art of incorporating various behavior traits into your style as you navigate office settings. It is ok to be diverse!


How do you build your direct staff of confidants? How to you develop trust? How do you make the insiders outsiders?

This is where having a healthy and diverse network is beneficial. It is critical to have the capability to shop the talent pool of peers or utilize the network of peers you trust to attract talent.

If you are inheriting a new team and desire to establish trust and comradery in these relationships then schedule time for team work events, over-communicate your thought process and strategy. Essentially take the team on a journey of how you internalize information and execute plans to deliver results for the business.


Now as we revisit the key question, how do you lead as an outsider?


You were hired for your skills and unique experiences. Embrace your strengths and use it to drive results. This is the best medicine for those that doubt you. Use your uniqueness to drive greatness.

Keep shining bright! If your light is too bright for some people, buy them some shades and shine anyway.