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Young, Old and In Between Equals Success

09/28/2013 10:02 am ET | Updated Nov 28, 2013

When I was a young adult and thought I had all the answers to life, and yet was looking for more information that might give me a leg up on success, I asked my father what he thought was the primary thing that contributed to his success. He was considered to be a pretty good trial lawyer. I thought he might say it was his superb debating skills, his style of public speaking, his ability for picking a jury, his uncanny knack for reading an audience, or his knowledge of the law. But, instead, he said: "Because I always have a full range of ages -- young, middle-aged, and old -- on my legal team."

I learned that he had at least one young lawyer just out of law school and at least one lawyer in his early forties (or thereabouts) on his team for each case he was handling. And he also frequently included on his legal team one of the founding partners of the law firm, a gentleman who was in his early eighties, was retired, but still came to the office every day. Dad not only went to him on a regular basis for advice, but also frequently asked him to sit at the lawyers' table with him during court and occasionally asked the older man to make the opening statement.

I could appreciate why my father had at least one recent law graduate on his team. Young graduates of any school are full of fresh dreams, ambitions and drive. I was still young enough to identify with having those aggressive and "know-it-all" attitudes that propelled me into my early professional years. I knew how essential it was for any team to be re-energized with those kinds of ideas and dreams, many of which are farfetched, but others that prove to be invaluable.

But I was puzzled as to why my father, in his late fifties and at the prime of his career, involved one of the founding partners. I assumed he was just trying to make the older man feel needed and important. But that was not the case. My father helped me understand that there's a great difference between "knowledge" and "wisdom."

Recent law graduates have the latest "knowledge" of the law and how the courts are conducting themselves and interpreting the law. They are indispensable for the lawyer who wants to be on the cutting edge. But the older person has the "wisdom" needed to apply the new knowledge and fresh ideas, a wisdom that comes only from age and experience. By the time people have reached their eighties, they have experienced or have knowledge of just about every circumstance that life has to offer, and they know what to expect and how to deal professionally with the great variety of situations that come to the fore. They have the wisdom needed to keep their cool, to sort through what is going on, to weigh the merits and evaluate new ideas, and to offer solutions that make sense and are practical. That person is also an essential member of every team. And it takes the "in-betweens" to meld the recent graduates and the older professionals.

During my career as a parish minister and later as a college president I discovered how beneficial it is to have a cross-section of ages on a professional staff and on volunteer boards and committees. And recently, I was reminded once of again of how necessary that is.

Three years ago, I was asked to be one of several presenters for an all-day learning conference for staff members of a prominent school district. My session was to be a ninety-minute presentation followed by questions and answers. I mentioned this to my oldest daughter. She said I would need to develop a computer-driven presentation with all types of visuals. I assured her that was not necessary, that I could handle everything by writing on a whiteboard. She said, "Oh, Dad, you are so out-of-date. You just don't realize what people will respond to nowadays." So she, her daughter (my granddaughter), and her go-to person for presentation design helped me develop a presentation. We put together what has turned out to be a really savvy presentation using the latest technology. They could not have done it without me, nor I without them.

This year will be my third year as a presenter, and I have been asked to present two sessions: one based on my book The Big Ten of Grammar that deals with everyday grammar, a repeat of the last two years; and a second one, "Correct Protocol, Format, and Grammar for E-mails, Memos, and Professional Letters." Again, I have had to call on my team members comprised of a cross-section of ages.

I am convinced that the most underused segment of very qualified people available for today's workforce is older adults. Some older adults are unable to work, and others don't want to. But many would be pleased to work part-time and would bring a much-needed and mature knowledge to the workplace that is not available from any other source. And they would be excited about working because they would be making an essential contribution to today's workplace.

Most business and professional people are on the lookout for talented young and middle-aged people to employ, but seldom think of going after older adults. Perhaps I'm prejudice because of my age, but, in my opinion, older adults have a unique ingredient that business and professional people of all venues would greatly benefit from having on their teams.

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