It is often said that all the great advances in mathematics are made by mathematicians in their 20s or early 30s. Many of the advances in physics are also done by the youngest scientists. By contrast, in chemistry a lot of great work is done by chemists in their 50s and 60s. Whereas mathematics and physics are disciplines where the big problems are well known, and the trick is not to be hindered by all previous attempts to solve them, chemistry is a science where the ability to integrate a wide array of knowledge is required to see where the big opportunities lie. Much of what we do in big companies, in mature industries, is more like chemistry than mathematics and much of what is done in the venture capital / start up world is more like mathematics than chemistry.
Sometimes in the modern corporation we have a priority to get rid of the older employee. There are lots of good reasons for this. Pension structures can be one. Another is that if the workforce is constant or shrinking overall, only by pushing people out at the top end of the age range can you do any hiring of new talent.
This certainly makes sense. And companies have developed and used various incentive plans to persuade people to retire early. But is this really desirable from the viewpoint of doing the business?
I think that today we undervalue experience. Perhaps not in the go-go businesses of Silicon Valley, where there is precious little experience available. But in the mature businesses -- oil, chemicals, minerals, etc. In these businesses experienced employees can and do make the difference between success and disaster.
Nobody learns the lubricants or the acrylonitrile or the gold production business at university. No one really learns how to deal with customer complaints, especially those from trade customers, in a classroom. We essentially learn this stuff by an apprentice method, younger employees learning from older ones, getting the freedom to do things unsupervised, and then doing them year in and year out for a few decades. The value that an experienced member of a team brings to a mature business, assuming he or she is operating effectively in the team context, is huge.
All right, so what? After all, you might argue that it is not the senior leadership of the corporation that makes the decision to retire this person early. But it is, of course it is. By indicating to the business unit leaders that they have to take out so many staff, and putting in place, via HR, the incentives that make it attractive for older, more experienced employees to go, the leadership of the company does make these decisions.
As I said, they may be the right decisions, and in the long term good of the company. But let's be sure we listen to our team leaders about consequences, and put in place the kind of training for younger employees that backs up a decision to shift the workforce away from experienced people. Let's be sure that we are thinking about both the short and long term, evaluating everyone in a meritocratic system commensurate with their age and experience. Finally, let's educate managers at all levels to progressively shift the roles of experienced employees so that they take on accountability for developing future generations for the Corporation.
About Leadership: <
About Leadership is a series of 52 columns on corporate leadership -- essential skills, leading teams, managing your career, the strategic and business practices to make a company and its leader distinctive from competitors. These columns will be of interest to people leading small and medium sized companies today, many of whom have not had much formal training in management skills and techniques; for the many people in big companies who aspire to senior management; and for anyone who thinks: Give me a hint, how can I do this better?