Does Experience Matter?

Over the next few weeks, I am working on finishing my book so will not be sending weekend reads and you may have already noticed their absence. Perhaps once every two weeks you may receive an older one which has been revised and improved.

The executive lunch room at Bombay House led to interesting conversations. During a discussion there, an elder colleague of mine, whom I admired, mentioned that he was very aware that when he was young, he often felt that the older colleagues were not in touch with tomorrow. As a result, he often let the young people try different things even if he may not always see the wisdom in them. This is something I endorse strongly. As a young upstart faculty member, I often rolled my eyes at my older colleagues. Then I became one of them!

With age, one has to start questioning to what extent your experience matters. And, when and where? You can see this question play out with large human consequences as young people cannot get jobs because they don’t have any experience and over 50s, especially in Western economies, cannot get a job because of age discrimination.

Experience, of course implies knowledge and an ability to do a job because of the learnings of the past. I would prefer a doctor, surgeon, pilot, nuclear power plant operator, and so on, with experience. Similarly, I would not give my money to a money manager unless they have lived through a recession and a long bear market. On the other hand, experience may imply rigidity and not keeping up with the latest techniques, such as with a surgeon. Experience, from a knowledge perspective, is only relevant if it implies continuous learning.

Then there is the freshness of youth. Youth implies creativity, energy, drive, and ambition and a reckless “go for it” attitude, no matter the odds. Henry Ford summarized this argument:

“It is not always easy to get away from tradition. That is why all our new operations are always directed by men who have no previous knowledge of the subject and therefore have not had the chance to get on really familiar terms with impossible.”

As we stand, technology is changing our world and our relationship to it is dependent on our age. If like me, you are in your 50s, then you remember the day when a PC was brought in to your workplace (1984) and to your home (1986 – my first IBM PC and I had to buy the extra 64K of memory for 125 dollars to get it to 128k). I started with Lotus 123 and Word perfect and saw Internet and email come into my life in 1990. Yes, I have achieved a certain level of mastery of this world in order to survive.

Contrast this experience with someone in their late thirties or forties who grew up with computers though probably only got a mobile phone after graduating from college. The technology is part of their life. Now think of someone in their twenties or even my daughter who is 15. She is probably on her 5th smart phone and does not know what a house/life without a computer, internet, or smart phone looks like (albeit the first smart phone at home when she was born was a Blackberry). She is a digital native – for her, technology is like a mother tongue rather than a second language.

Experience & Functional Expertise

The  impact of experience on different organizational functions differs. Imagine I am hiring a Chief Financial Officer or Chief Legal Officer or a head of factory operations. Experience is good here. Yes, technology has changed, but for their job, the important things are unchanged.  A CFO with experience knows how to manage the auditors, has built good relationships with important external stakeholders, and provided they keep up with the changing reporting and financial regulations, experience is only positive.

Similarly, an experienced corporate lawyer knows the company’s history, the past and present litigations, the corporate structures and existing agreements. Law changes rather slowly, and till they ramp up, I would prefer experience over youth. The factory manager who has been there a long time (unless it is a drastic turnaround situation) knows the factory well and the pressure points for obtaining further efficiency gains as well as the bottle necks. All good so far.

In contrast, consider I want to hire a Chief Marketing Officer and my challenge is to move quickly to the new marketing and media channels where the youth are currently residing. If we need to embrace Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and Kik, who am I going to hire? What is the advantage of experience over youth here?

Forget someone in their 50s; a 45 year old may even be too old. It may be that we discriminate in favour of the late 20 year old. I know this is harsh, but marketing is the place where technology is really having an impact. It is where “core capabilities” and being transformed into “core rigidities”. Of course, as a 50+ person, I can comfort myself by saying that it is not age or experience that matters but mindset.



Magic Dust: The Goya Journal – Consider the Mango

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @ProfKumar and LinkedIn.

One Comment Add yours

  1. sherene says:

    “Law changes rather slowly, and till they ramp up, I would prefer experience over youth” – The law has historically changed very very slowly, but there will need to be a blitz of new legal frameworks for the fast evolving digital sphere.. even in this traditionally slow space, I’d venture that some infusion of the new and young may be valuable…overall, I am sure you would agree that it helps to have a good balance of age groups and diverse points of view across all fields, with some spikes (in youth or age) in certain areas of course.


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