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Columbia Business Monthly

Companies should value experience and youth equally

Dec 07, 2018 10:33AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Sheryl McAlister
Adjunct Professor, Columbia College

The late railroad executive Alfred Edward Perlman once said, “After you've done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully. After five years, look at it with suspicion. And after 10 years, throw it away and start all over.” 

That strategy might be a good one if you find yourself partnered with the wrong person or if you’re having a bad hair day. But it’s not necessarily the best approach for building a viable and sustainable workforce. I believe there has to be a balance between the wisdom of the experienced and the youthful idealism of the rookies.

I have long held the belief that large corporations, as well as small organizations, could do a better job of valuing experience as much as they value youth. Tattoos and nose rings as much as pearls and blue suits. Blue hair as much as white hair.

I am fortunate to work in an industry that values both. Other industries, however, work hard to create financial incentives to move people of a certain age out of the way. In an ever-changing workforce, that’s not always the best strategy.

My career path has afforded me many opportunities, terrific experiences, a handful of lifelong friends, and much perspective. And I have had the opportunity the past few years to work with some really cool people — in the classroom and the sports business.

I have written before that I have found a rhythm that blends my appetite for lifelong learning, my propensity to draw outside the lines, my aversion to “doing things the way they’ve always been done,” and my appreciation for students who have a desire to grow in ways they didn’t realize they could.

I have found a potpourri of generations—both women and men—who are not burdened by the same prejudices that generations before them had or have. If they are closed-minded initially, fruitful discussion usually opens their minds. The naiveté that may come with too few life experiences also generates hopeful, energetic conversation about the possibilities.

These young or younger folks I have the pleasure of working with are incredibly smart, often intensely passionate individuals who are genuinely interested in learning from someone who has walked their paths before. The energy that comes from productive dialogue between the older, experienced associates and the younger, idealistic associates can be a powerful motivator for organizations and teams that want to be nimble enough to move with the changing times but rock solid enough to handle the tough ones.

My opinion is my own, of course, and I don’t represent either of my organizations in this writing. But I don’t believe, however, that my perspective is skewed. I vividly remember as a young sports writer and young corporate officer who valued, beyond measure, the advice and counsel of those on whose shoulders I stood. No generation should discount the others. 

The youngest of us should not be written off because they choose to balance their lives and value inclusion. And the most experienced among us should not be written off because the mirror tells us the outside looks older than the inside feels.

“It's good to hang out with people better than you,” said the famous octogenarian businessman Warren Buffet. “Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours, and you'll drift in that direction.”

We are at a point in the evolution of our society and as humans where we have to work together for the best possible outcome. Those who cannot grasp the concept that sometimes change is inevitable might need to get out of the way. Because it will take the contributions of all of us to get where we need to go.