I don’t know about your culture, but in the UK there’s a well-worn joke that goes something like: “You know you’re old when you start saying the doctors look young.”
This must at least be as big as spanning the English-speaking world. I mean, Steve Martin put it in a movie:
What more cultural relevance could you want than Father of the Bride II?
What does it teach us? That despite the fact that the doctor looks too young she is still brilliant at her job. And that is all that matters.
Brilliance matters, age doesn’t
I’m just going to assume that we want the best person for the job. So the exercise is to find brilliant people. If you disagree with either of those statements, you might as well stop reading (and maybe stop managing people?).
Still with me? Ok, so this raises the question:
If a person is brilliant, why not trust them?
(Of course, this goes either way, age-wise as there are plenty of older workers assumed not to be brilliant simply because of their date of birth. That’s a whole other blog.)
Trust and experience
In my experience, and speaking to many people working in many different kinds of organisations, there is still too little trust-based-on-brilliance. There is too much age-prejudice based on unthinking reliance on perceptions of a person’s experience.
Of course, experience matters. It is an important piece of evidence that someone is brilliant. Experience is not the end in itself though – remember, now you’ve read this far, that the aim is to find brilliant people who are best for the job. Experience is just part of the means to achieve that.
The market failure here is our abject inability, as a workplace culture, to accurately ascertain what the right level of experience actually is.
Our culture is geared towards more senior workers/managers/business owners getting to say what the right level of experience is. Nothing wrong with that, right? Sounds like a sensible recruitment/promotion process.
My somewhat radical challenge is this:
I simply deny that the most senior person is always best placed to determine what the right level of experience is.
“Been there, done that” is not always the answer. There are plenty of mistakes you can still make, as a senior decision-maker, even with all the experience under your belt, that will make sure your perception of what a role requires or what a person has learned is so skewed that your judgement is way out.
For example, if your company needs to do something innovative, “been there, done that” is not only precisely not an answer but even thinking you have been there and done that is a dangerous barrier to success.
We have a market failure, the current answer cannot be the answer.
Be a Ram
I’ve seen this a lot in companies and am sworn (literally) to secrecy. So, let’s take an example that has played out very publicly:
Sean McVay & the Los Angeles Rams
(aka America’s favourite millennial – shout out to Bill Simmons on that)
Appointed in 2017, McVay is the youngest coach in NFL history, at 31 years old. He is not only younger than some of his players – he even looks young to me and I’m a millennial!
If you listened to some of the senior people in the league, who apparently know what is the right level of experience because they’ve been there and done that, he would not have been hired because he hasn’t learned enough yet. Quite a lot of the league is still really old-school and many nay-sayers were quick to predict disaster.
Turns out not only that he’s better than most of the older coaches but also that he is already in the conversation as one of the top coaches in the NFL.
He has enlivened one of the most tediously mediocre teams in the league, turned one of the worst young quarterbacks in NFL history into a viable player and put the Rams in position for their first winning season since 2003. His predecessor, Jeff Fisher, had all the experience…and McVay has already won as many games this season, in 1/3 of the time, as Fisher did all of last season.
Like the Father of the Bride doctor, he is qualified, it turns out he’s clearly done enough to be there…so everyone should have shut up about his age and trusted him with the job.
What you can do
That ability to cut through prejudice and trust is rare, but you need it to be able to improve and innovate.
You can get ahead by working out how to trust people based on a different perception of experience. You may have to chuck out all your assumptions about how to find talent and start from scratch. You may not.
Just remember, the Rams did so it can’t be that hard – they’re owned by Stan Kroenke for goodness sake and ask Arsenal fans about his capacity for forward-thinking!
Adam Papaphilippopoulos, Partner, Reluctantly Brave; Fellow, Royal Society of Arts