Does age matter when you're CEO?

While CEOs almost never get the job at 72, there are those who are effective at that age and beyond. Warren Buffett brka turns 78 the day after McCain turns 72. Walter Zable, CEO of electronics manufacturer Cubic, cub is 93. Marriott International mar CEO Bill Marriott is 76. News Corp. nws CEO Rupert Murdoch is 77. Kirk Kerkorian, CEO of Tracinda, is 91. Financier Carl Icahn waded into the fight between Microsoft msft and Yahooyhoo at 72. T. Boone Pickens is weighing in on the energy quandary at 80.

Sidney Harman, 90, retired at 88 as CEO of audio equipment giant Harman International, har where he had long been the dean of S&P 500 CEOs. The oldest five S&P 500 CEOs left are 77 to 79, practically wet behind the ears. Harman says he walks 18 holes of golf, sometimes 23, and travels every other week between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, where he teaches a business course at the University of Southern California.

"Do I detect any difference between now and when I was 70? A little, but there is nothing significantly diminished," Harman says. "Am I a better executive than I was at 47? In some ways, absolutely. I think less in terms of me and more for others. I don't have the same level of enthusiasm, but I can inspire others more easily."

An exception to the rule

Harman says it's obvious that he is an exception, and he quotes former New York Mets manager Casey Stengel: "Most men my age are dead."

Dinesh Paliwal, 51, replaced Harman as CEO 13 months ago. Under such youthful leadership, stock in Harman International has fallen 63%.

However, as a group, the S&P 500 companies run by the youngest CEOs have been outperforming those run by the oldest. Of the 27 CEOs of S&P 500 who are 47 and younger, 23 have been CEO since the start of 2007. Those 23 stocks are down an average 2.8% over 19 months vs. a 9% decline in the S&P 500 index. The six companies with CEOs who are 72 and older are down an average of 21%.

Conclusions are all but impossible to draw from the portfolios of 23 and six companies, but winners are few among the older CEOs. Nabors Industries, with 78-year-old Eugene Isenberg as CEO, is up 10%, but the other five are down substantially over 19 months. Amazon, amzn with 44-year-old Jeff Bezos at the helm, is the runaway leader among both age groups: up 121%.

When Bezos was 39, he was part of a 2003 analysis by Forbes magazine designed to measure the performance of the 10 youngest (average age 44) vs. the 10 oldest (average age 74) CEOs of large companies. Forbes employed a formula to measure CEO compensation packages relative to shareholder return. That study found that the younger CEOs as a group outperformed the higher-paid, older CEOs.

CEOs in their 40s say they have seen enough energetic role models to know what executives in their 70s can continue to accomplish. Troy Clarke, president of General Motors North America, gm says that until he met General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, 76, he assumed that no successful executive could function past 70. Lutz has more energy than those half his age, Clarke says.

Good leaders are crafted from tough times, even failure, says Gaines-Ross. Necessary experience rarely comes before 50, she says. "There is a prime age, like wine. Aged or seasoned executives establish credibility," she says.

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