Old dogs and new tricks

The average age of today’s US corporate director at large company is about 60, according to research from executive compensation firm Pearl Meyer & Partners and the National Association of Corporate Directors (NACD).
And 62 percent of non-profit sector directors are 50 or more years of age, according to the Governance Index published by the information service BoardSource. 2007 Korn/Ferry Board Study of 8000 directors in Asia Pacific, Europe and North America found that the average mandatory retirement age was 69 in Europe, while in North America the average mandated retirement was at age 72. So are the boardrooms of the world filled with directors who are past it, over the hill and well beyond their use-by dates?
It is well known that ageing causes deterioration in number of brain functions, particularly memory. There are many factors that cause ageing brains to experience changes in their ability to retain and retrieve information. First the hippocampus is very vulnerable to age-related deterioration. It is part of the limbic system in the brain that plays range of important roles in long-term memory, so that can affect how well you retain information.
There is loss of neurons with age, which can affect the activity of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and their receptors. An older person often experiences decreased blood flow to the brain, which means less efficient brain activity compared to that of younger person. These changes can cause problems with brain functions.
The older person might have trouble remembering details of show or movie they saw recently or directions to new shop or restaurant. It might take them longer to recall names, faces, and locations, even if you’ve seen them before. They might get flustered if they have to pay attention to more than one thing at time. Not only does memory deteriorate, but surely so do energy, enthusiasm and motivation?
These views reflect powerful myth that ageing is process of steady and inevitable deterioration and decline. Gene Cohen, director of the Center on Ageing, Health and Humanities at George Washington University in his book The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain suggests otherwise.
There are many older people who show poor cognitive ability, but Cohen suggests that is primarily due to diseases such as dementia, while the other major contributing factors are lack of mental and physical fitness.
Drawing on wide range of research into human ageing, Cohen suggests that as the healthy and fit human brain ages, it goes through series of developmental stages that bring highly valuable perspectives and insights to bear on issues. He suggests that there are four phases in ‘old age’:
• Re-evaluation: This can take place any time between the mid-30s to the mid-60s, where there is realisation of mortality and reconsideration of life decisions. In the governance context, this phase often enables directors to think more about legacy issues, carefully managing balance sheet risk and taking long-term perspective on growth and profit.
• Liberation: This stage often takes place between the mid-50s and the mid-70s, where the question is ‘If not now, when?’ as people experiment with new ways. Directors who have reached this phase are often more willing to forego ego issues and take smart risks to help develop new innovative products or services.
• Summing up: This takes place from the late 60s through the 80s, where people seek to share, give something back and complete unfinished business. In this phase, directors can often thoughtfully focus on philanthropy and the setting up of foundations or other ways to encourage human and social development.
• Encore: From the late 70s onwards, major life themes are re-stated and re-affirmed. This last phase tends to have less relevance in the governance context.
Cohen suggests that there are range of reasons why the older person can function very well. He finds that older brains can produce new brain cells to compensate for the death of some cells. The brain can also draw on underused areas, so compensating for the effects of ageing. Cohen suggests that the brain’s information processing centre achieves its greatest density and reach between the ages of 60 and 80 years.
Here in New Zealand, we have clear local evidence of what Cohen is saying. There are wide range of older New Zealand directors close to or in their 70s who have shown remarkable ability to deal with highly complex and difficult issues.
These include:
• Jim Bolger, who is still very active chair of Kiwibank and has currently been grappling with issues such as capital raising for the bank.
• Dame Margaret Bazley, chairperson of the NZ Fire Service Commission, registrar of the Pecuniary Interests of Members of Parliament, member of the Waitangi Tribunal, chair of the Fundamental Review of the Legal Aid System and recently appointed to chair of the commissioners who are to oversee Environment Canterbury and fix the region’s significant water issues.
• Sir Tipene O’Regan, an eminent kaumatua, academic and business leader, the first assistant vice-chancellor (Maori) at the University of Canterbury.
Older directors often have different and interesting perspectives. This is so for John Groom, the 63-year-old deputy chairman of the not-for-profit anti-violence NGO Man Alive. He uses the phrase “from warrior to wisdom” to describe the types of changes he has seen in directors he has known and worked with over the past decade.
Older directors are able to show ‘eldership’ – the wisdom that comes with age. Groom believes that they are better able to understand and constructively manage their negative emotions and more likely to emphasise the positive than their younger counterparts.
He feels older directors are better able to synthesise disparate or opposing views or sources and information and make constructive sense of them. These directors are more able to see the forest for the trees, to pull back from an idea or situation and see it in broader context.
What can the ageing director do to keep up with the play? Cohen identifies five activities to sustain power, clarity and subtlety of mind, all of which are directly relevant to the ageing director.
• Exercise mentally Many people see physical exercise as important, but exercising mental abilities is just as important. With regular mental challenges such as dealing with complex governance issues, the individual is likely to remain alert and an effective problem solver.
• Exercise physically This helps to maintain bone density, muscle tone and weight and it also improves cardiovascular fitness and brain functioning.
• Take up challenging leisure activities Learning to play musical instrument or painting can greatly improve mental functioning. The 2009 international documentary I Remember Better When I Paint is film about the positive impact of art and other creative therapies in people with Alzheimer’s disease. The film shows the way creativity helps individuals sidestep some of the affected areas of the brain caused by dementia disorders such as Alzheimer’s and how they can strengthen their imaginations through therapeutic art. An interesting YouTube video is available if you search on I Remember Better When I Paint.
• Achieve mastery Cohen suggests that research on ageing has uncovered key variable in mental health that he has called “sense of control”. He indicates that from middle age onward, people who have sense of control or mastery stay healthier than those who don’t. It appears that mastery can not only improve the mental state but also strengthen the immune system too.
• Establish strong social networks Cohen claims that many studies have linked active social networking and connection to better mental and physical health and lower death rates. Older socially connected individuals enjoy significantly lower blood pressur

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