It's Politically Correct to Value Senior Talent in Word...Not Deed

For a while now, companies have lamented the loss of what’s called institutional knowledge – the know-how that walks out the door when a long-time employee retires. That person’s skills, understanding of products and customers, experience with getting things done, insights into regulatory compliance issues, or the integration of remote suppliers and employees are all considered valuable (and difficult to replace).

ageism_experienceSuch an assumption is only partly true. That’s because the company the employee is leaving is, almost certainly, not the one he or she joined. Changes in leadership, mergers and acquisitions, new product lines (and abandoned ones), turnover in staff, and numerous other factors often reveal that the only thing about the firm that may not have changed is the name. If no one forced the seasoned staffer out the door, he or she probably remained just as capable as anyone else.

A Change in the Employment Landscape

Employees who were mentored by the long-term employee may have moved into other divisions. Up-and-coming employees may have gotten up and gone. And younger men and women don’t tend to think of their careers in single firm terms; advancement is often equated with “moving on.”

Yet, when it comes to replacing the departing employee, companies that are presented with a choice between hiring someone with years or decades of experience and hiring someone younger who’s only a few years in, the hiring patterns skew younger. Sometimes, it’s that younger managers are uncomfortable giving direction to employees who are old enough to be the managers’ parents. Or they worry about shining less brightly in the shadow of someone with far more experience (and, perhaps, expertise), oblivious to a manager’s ability to bask in the glow of his or her team’s success.

Other reasons range from not being part of the target market or not having a track record using newer technologies or not being similar enough to (or “compatible” with) the rest of the staff. If the same senior employee had already been on staff when all the “new kids” joined the team, however, the perception would more likely skew toward “mentor,” “guide,” “counselor,” “teacher,” and “someone who’s seen it all.” Of course, among those who are still young enough to know everything (to steal an idea from Oscar Wilde and others), the seasoned employee might be seen as being well past his or her “use by” date.

The Virtues of Circumstance

Seen from another angle, people who started their own firms and managed them successfully for decades are readily accepted as smart, contemporary, and even visionary. CEOs who are hired from outside a company’s ranks have often spent just as much time advancing through (and leading) other businesses, arriving at their new company with an AARP app on their smartphones.

Like refugees with advanced degrees – those who left behind prestigious positions in their home countries and wound up doing menial work in the U.S. because they lacked connections or a sponsor – senior talent is too often appreciated more for what was done than for what might still be accomplished. They’re applauded as they walk out the door but, if they try to re-enter, they discover that the locks were changed, their card key de-activated, or the door itself removed.

Myopic Perspectives

There’s a story I heard about a young tech whiz telling someone at a party that they’re too old to understand the latest devices and software and gizmos because they didn’t grow up with them the way the “new” kids did. “That’s true,” the “old” person replies, “which is why we had to invent them.”

With so many companies complaining that they can’t find skilled people, maybe they should look the people whose shoulders they’re standing on.


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