A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 1, 2013

Getting Better Not Older: Experience, Ability and Ambition in the Workplace

We have pretty much written off an entire generation. Anyone over the age of forty is perceived to be too unskilled, too inflexible and probably too expensive to retain. And dont even think about hiring them at this point.

Not that the Boomers have a lot of support out there, what with their sixty years of having dominated the demographic, social and economic landscape. And if we are being honest, they started it with all that My Generation, 'hope I die before I get old' stuff back in 1967.

Given our demand for more and better data accompanying the imperative to make informed decisions based on knowledge rather than emotion, the inter-generational propensity to dismiss the contributions that the Boomers and even some of their successors can make may, in fact, be as irrational as ignoring seismic warnings of a geologic nature.

In assessing their value potential, we can start with tacit knowledge, what researchers like Dave Delong and others have described as the ability to understand how things actually work as in the accumulated wisdom of experience with idiosyncratic processes that enables people to generate productivity and profitability increases despite the combined weight of incompatible legacy systems and the other detritus of decades worth of financial engineering gone viral.

Another indication of knowledge ignored is in the entre and intrapreneurial realm. The following article explains that the average age of successful entrepreneurs is not - as the popular myth would have it - young guys in their 20s, but rather 40. Yeah, 40. There are many more successful entrepreneurs over 50 than under 25. Which is consistent with research my colleagues and I did on factors predicting IPO success. It turned out that between 1986 and the early 2000s, the most successful, as in exceeded their introductory stock price, were those businesses with ten years of experience and more than 50 employees. Which makes what  Bill and Steve and Woz and Zuck and Larry and Sergey accomplished all the more impressive, but it is not the norm.

It is not that age is necessarily better than some other attribute for managerial or leadership effectiveness. Nor that we need another dose of 'greatest generation' hyperbole. As in so many other forms of human endeavor, having a mix of skills, ages, psychological and social profiles almost always increases the potential to realize goals and objectives. Simply put, there are a lot of people with a lot of skills who, if properly motivated, incentivized and led, can contribute to any kind of enterprise and, who, in fact, can enhance the effort to build the new, new things of tomorrow. Ignoring them is wasting a resource and, almost certainly, creating an advantage for someone prescient enough to see the opportunity.  JL

Whitney Johnson reports in Harvard Business Review:

Experienced workers provide intellectual and emotional ballast in the workplace including innovation expertise
When my mother turned forty, we threw her a tongue-in-cheek funeral-themed surprise party, festooning the living room with paper tombstones engraved with Rest in Peace. That party theme is now a laughable conceit — forty then was older than forty now. Almost. In today's world, there is still a bias against older people — employers in particular often think (in their mind) what Shark Tank's Kevin O'Leary is fond of saying to entrepreneurs he doesn't like, "You are dead to me." If we're being honest, we probably agree with O'Leary. Who of us hasn't said, "I'm looking for someone young and hungry." The implication is clear: If you aren't young, you have nothing to contribute.
According to famed developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, as we grow older, hunger for meaning animates us, making us more alive. His theory explains that each healthy human passes through eight stages of development from infancy to adulthood. The seventh stage of development typically takes places between the ages 40-64 and centers around generativity, a period not of stagnation, but of productivity and creativity, including a strong commitment to mentoring and shoring up the next generation. Individuals in this developmental stage are supremely motivated to generate value, not just for themselves, but for others, asking the question: What can I do to make my life really count?
There are loads of both anecdotal and empirical data to support this idea of accelerating creativity in our middle years. Take Cheryl Kellond, for example, one of forty women we recently profiled in 40 Women Over 40 to Watch. Kellond, 43, founded Bia Sport, a GPS sports watch that records time, current heart rate, sending the data straight to an online profile. It also comes with a panic button that gives women who work out alone peace of mind. With traditional sources of financing unavailable, Kellond raised her first round of capital ($408,000) on Kickstarter — the ultimate in creative financing. Then there's Linda Avey, who at age 46 started breakout company 23 and Me, a direct-to-consumer company that gives people access to their genetic data. At age 53, Avey is on her second start-up, Curious, a tool that gives people tools to ask questions about their health through data aggregation and sharing.

Research suggests Kellond and Avey aren't one-offs. "The average age of a successful entrepreneur in high-growth industries such as computers, health care, and aerospace is 40. Twice as many successful entrepreneurs are over 50 as under 25. The vast majority — 75 percent — have more than six years of industry experience and half have more than 10 years when they create their startup," says Duke University scholar Vivek Wadhwa, who studied 549 successful technology ventures. Meanwhile, data from the Kauffman Foundation indicates the highest rate of entrepreneurship in America has shifted to the 55-64 age group, with people over 55 almost twice as likely to found successful companies than those between 20 and 34.
The over-40 crowd is also more likely to do work that matters not just for themselves, but also future generations. For example, Jacki Zehner, 47, the youngest woman to become a partner at Goldman Sachs, is pouring her post-forty life into philanthropy on behalf of women and girls as CEO of Women Moving Millions. Carol Fox, 69, has devoted her golden years to the China-U.S. Philanthropy project, teaching Chinese billionaires how to extend their circle of caring beyond family. While photojournalist Paola Gianturco, 73, igniting an activist grandmother movement, inspiring grandmothers across the world to become involved in education, health and human rights. In learning about these inspiring individuals, it's easy to see why research indicates that a 55-year-old and even a 65-year-old have more innovation potential than a 25-year-old: innovators really do get better with age.
Think about it — disruptive innovation is about playing where no one wants to play (low-end), or has thought of playing (new market). As individuals move into Erikson's seventh developmental stage, creating something new isn't just a "nice thing to do" — it is a psychological imperative. The urge to create, to generate a life that counts impels people to innovate, even when it's lonely and scary. Data notwithstanding, some of the companies among us will continue allow these individuals to fall into the arms of independent work, if we don't give them the boot first. The smart companies — and my money is on you — will harness this hunger of the underserved, ready-to-serve corp of talent, and upend the competition.


Post a Comment