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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Muller

The Value of Wisdom, Experience and Age in the Professional World

When I first entered the white-collar world in my first job, like most graduates, I was sure that my employer would see my academic record, talk to me over the first few weeks, realize that I was destined for greatness, and give me significant responsibilities.

When the reality set in that I was going to be performing relatively low-value and limited tasks, it was a huge disappointment. I found it similar to migrating from high school athletics to college athletics. I was a fairly talented golfer in high school, and one of the reasons swaying me to attend college was that I perhaps could play collegiate golf and leverage that into a professional golf career. Little did I know that I would suddenly, at the collegiate level, become just one more golfer trying to make the team. The talent level at division I college golf was superior, nothing like I had imagined. I did make the varsity in my sophomore year in college, and actually won a tournament my sophomore year, but it was clear to me that I was NOT headed into the professional golf tour given the talents of fellow golfers I had competed against.

Similarly, at my first white-collar job, I was amazed at the talent level and intelligence of most of the employees in my department. Compared to the university level, this ‘employed’ situation was very different, with smart, hard-working people with much more experience related to my employer than I ever hoped to have. Clearly, there were intelligent students in my college classes, but there were also a significant percentage there that did not apply themselves all that seriously. It was easy to believe that you were ‘something special’ compared to some students who clearly were struggling in the college environment, at least academically.

It was also frustrating to hear those more experienced talk at lunch, or after work, about all that they knew about my company, from how product was produced to how it was ordered to how we used warehousing to marketing processes and pricing processes, etc.

But during those early years, I was also able to spend a bit of time at organized dinners or lunches to meet some at the GM, director, VP, or even, president level at our company. What surprised me about these meetings was that just about every one of these executives was old. With me being twenty-two years old, honestly, I thought they were ancient! They all had to be fifty to sixty-five years old. Where were the thirty-year-old executives? Where were the forty-year-old executives for that matter? Couldn’t everyone see that these old-timers just had to lack the energy and spirit to be effective leaders? Clearly, someone thirty years old could run rings around these guys! They seemed to talk slowly, moved in a very deliberate fashion, and asked more questions than they answered. What was going on here?

What I found out about these executives was that they usually did not come ‘up through the ranks’ in their area of responsibility. Rather, they had spent time at different functions within the company during their careers, learning more and more about different company functions and building relationships with key decision makers around the company. So, a typical career path for a VP or director may have started as a sales engineer, then after five years, getting an assignment in manufacturing for three to five years, then taking an overseas assignment for three to five years, then working in the financial or purchasing area for three to five years, etc.

Since I was a computer science major, working in the Information Technology department, it was easy to see that if I aspired to become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) or some other senior position at the company, it would not happen by staying in the IT department for twenty-five years. Not that I aspired to be the CIO at that time, but little did I know that thirty years later, that is exactly the role I would take late in my career.

Over the years, I found that those ‘broadening’ assignments in other functions did not happen all by themselves. I learned that usually, to be considered for those moves, you had to be an excellent performer, had to have a track record of success in different roles, had to be a good communicator, and had to be focused upon what was best for the company. I finally decided, after close to ten years at the company in the same department, that I wanted to pursue an MBA in the evenings to invest in myself and to give myself the best opportunity to advance into those broadening positions. So finally, after obtaining my MBA, I was offered my first role outside of IT after thirteen years at the same company!

But I kept asking myself, throughout my early career, why it was that someone younger could not do well enough to be promoted to a director or VP level at perhaps age thirty or thirty-five. I just did not understand, until I left the IT world, the value of experience and knowledge.

Think of career progression as being similar to becoming a senior pilot in commercial aviation. Just because someone in their early twenties studies and gets a pilot’s license, doesn’t mean that they will quickly fly a 777 overseas to China with 350 people onboard. Instead, airlines typically start junior pilots on very small commuter jets, with perhaps twelve to twenty passengers onboard and only as a co-pilot. Eventually, after hundreds and hundreds of flights in various weather and wind conditions, flying a variety of aircraft, they may be promoted by the airline to pilot a mid-sized jet on domestic flights. Only late in their career would they be considered to pilot a 777 overseas. Why is that?

Clearly, the implications of a mistake on a 777 flying overseas are much more significant than a mistake on a commuter jet. The commuter jet is smaller, more agile, and recovery from a mistake is much easier. If the worst happened, the number of lives lost would be much lower, and the jet costs would be much different. In other words, the implications of mistakes are huge on large international flights, and airlines want to reduce the risk of mistakes as much as possible for obvious reasons. To be a great pilot, you don’t necessarily need great reflexes or strength or stamina; rather, you need to be able to tap into deep knowledge and experience to make the correct decisions should a problem crop up during a flight.

The business world is much the same. Imagine a twenty-five-year-old fresh out of their MBA program, taking over as the head of an international division in China, responsible for sales, manufacturing, marketing, legal compliance, and employee relations. Certainly, they could jump into such a role and learn on the job, but imagine the cost of mistakes! What if they made the wrong decision about the interpretation of a Chinese law related to pricing? What if they approved a certain exception to a manufacturing process, and the result was end products being produced and shipped to customers that were unsafe? What if they treated every employee in China the way that Americans treat employees? If they were not conscious of the Chinese customs and ways of doing business, they could create a serious issue with morale, quits, and turnover.

When you think about senior roles, especially in large companies, the financial and reputational impacts of their decisions are huge. Companies, and shareholders of those companies, want to be assured that only those with the best and broadest experience and track record are named to senior positions. Therefore, larger companies in the white-collar world spend inordinate amounts of time coaching employees and management, training them, evaluating them, and monitoring their performance. When a key opening occurs at a senior level, large companies want more than a few good choices in the candidate pool. And in the main, those best candidates have spent years and years honing their skills and knowledge related to how their company operates, and how the industry works that they compete within.

Once I reached more senior levels, this became obvious to me, having seen how much additional skill and knowledge I acquired. But on occasion, I would talk to a young and aspiring candidate who clearly was impatient with their lack of speed in moving into senior positions. My advice was always the same: “Be patient, and just focus upon performing and learning all that you can! You cannot rush the process of learning the hundreds and hundreds of valuable lessons you will need later in your career when you finally get to a senior position with a significant amount of responsibility.”

This is a difficult lesson to learn, especially when you grow up in a blue-collar world where all you experience is a parent or parent’s friend having the same job for most of the adult life, or you watch athletes in their prime at early ages, maximizing their income before they ever reach thirty years old. The white-collar world is all about gaining broad experience, encountering and solving myriads of issues and problems, and gradually building the confidence to handle just about any issue that comes along.

It wasn’t until I was well into my fifties that I become 99 percent confident that I could handle just about any business problem that arose, just by applying my experience, by leveraging the talents and expertise of the right people around me, and being open and honest and communicative about the issue with others. As a division president, and later as a senior vice-president, I was able to remain calm when significant problems or issues arose, just because I knew that solving significant problems does not require magic or untested solutions, rather solving significant issues requires a certain confidence that tried-and-true techniques will work, just like they worked in prior jobs and experiences. First, define the real problem; second, consider all the root causes of the problem; third, consider options to solve the root problems, etc. Being an effective leader is as much about remaining calm with others and giving others confidence that the problem can be resolved as it is actually solving the problem yourself. If others see panic in a leader, they may also panic and probably make mistakes that will be costly.

But what about the exorbitant pay packages for CEOs and other executives? How can companies justify such compensation? After watching a few executives come and go at our company and at other companies, and after becoming an executive later in life, I can tell you that these senior positions more or less consume most of your available time. There is no splitting ‘at work’ time from personal time. I heard a few CEOs comment about this when asked, saying things such as ‘I never imagined how all-encompassing this job would be, and how many hours of my life every day it would consume.’ The market also has shown the true value of a successful CEO and team of senior executives versus those less than successful. Not only stock price but also strategic success and vision can be determined via leadership of truly inspiring leaders. A great leader is worth their weight in gold, so boards typically work very hard to develop attractive and competitive compensation packages for CEOs and other critical executives. Without these compensation packages, very few qualified employees would ever aspire to work very hard to someday be promoted into a CEO or other senior role.

So, in summary, remember that in the white-collar world, experience and knowledge and leadership mean everything, and those traits and skills take a fair amount of time to build. Youth, energy, optimism, and reflexes are not all that valuable, unless of course, you are planning to leave the white-collar world and become a professional athlete!

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