I work with many small and mid-sized companies as well as newly commercialized start-ups. These business neophytes have worked out their product/service model, can articulate their solution in a global world of need, have rigorously tested their MVP assumptions and have successfully sold product to their customer’s delight. So, where’s the problem? Entrepreneurs trap themselves by having an age bias. They miss an opportunity to engage with an experienced executive. It is a real loss to the start-up, the founder, and the employees. Here’s why…
Most, but not all, startups begin in high school but today more universities, especially in the Philadelphia area, have funded entrepreneurial focused programs and courses.
Temple University created one called the IEI program called the B.Y.O.B.B. (Be Your Own Boss Bowl) under the direction of Ellen Weber. This program allows entrepreneurs to compete for prize money based upon the viability of the business concept. As a past judge and mentor for several start-ups, I found the experience very rewarding, but some of the submissions miss the mark on the sales and marketing portion of their executive brief. This, in my opinion, is the result of not having enough real-world-work experience. This year, I was honored to be a mentor for Envizzo, an experiential marketing company co-founded by Ariel Maidansky, who placed third overall in the competition. Kudos to Ariel.
What happens to a small business, or a start-up, who does not have access to a similar entrepreneurial program or a business mentor? They may never realize they are, in fact, creating systemic problems on their own, and, without awareness, overlooking the impact. As the company grows, and resources strained, the decision is to hire recent grads becomes the order of the day. But without knowing the level of competency of each new hire is a huge risk. As mentioned in past blogs, Three Ways to Reduce Your Hiring Frustrations, be careful when you hire. What skills will they bring? Will your new hire have a greater understanding of business concepts and practical applications around marketing, sales, pitching your product or solving profit and loss issues? How will they be held accountable for their roles and responsibilities? Or, do these new hires show up when they want to and mirror persona of the founder? Keep in mind, the owner may not have all the answers to the company challenges either.
Interestingly, outside of the business culture, other industries embrace age, experience, and talent. Our political system seems to be fine with Hillary, who passed her 68th birthday, and Donald who is now over 70. There were many heated issues on their campaign stops, but I do not recall age being one of them.
How about celebrity performances, like Tony Bennett who, at 90, still sounds great. Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger now in their 70s are still rocking. Moreover, Bruce Springsteen still provides an incredible performance for hours; he is over 65. Look at rock icon Debbie Harry of Blondie, who is still relevant at 71, and she just launched a new album. Examine the age of well-known doctors, lawyers, accountants, and professors. Rarely, if ever, are we concerned about their competence over the age of 70. How about the Pope? Anyone concerned he is unable to do his job because he is in his 80s? Not me.
So why the resistance in business? I suspect the age bias began in the boardrooms of corporate America. For many publicly traded companies, the CEO is usually done by age 65, sometimes earlier. Some are burned out, and many are pushed out. Larger companies view labor as an expense that needs trimming, and business experience is a finite resource. On the level just below the C-suite, a common practice is to exercise the “Up or Out” option quietly. “If you are not moving up, then we will help you move out.” So, corporate execs between 50 and 70 who have experience building businesses go peacefully into retirement.
Many of these executives are in good health and want to contribute either as a volunteer, a paid consultant, or employed through executive-as-a-service or provide their experience hrough a “factional executive” program. In these programs, a pool of experienced managers can be engaged to deliver valuable skills, provide counsel and critical advice to a start-up at a fraction of the cost of a full-time exec. With a little creativity, it can be a fantastic opportunity for new entrepreneurs. When I asked some of my new commercialized start-ups to consider a 65-year-old hire, I heard these comments:
“Too expensive.” “Too old/sick.” “They are not relevant to what we do” “He is older than my grandfather, and he does not have a clue.” “What happens if they die here in the office?” (Really?)
Interestingly, the founders I interviewed have no problem hiring several 20-something-year-olds without experience instead of one-part time experienced executive. An experienced exec could have cost less than an intern and provided far more experience and actionable direction than any other hire.
Apparently, prejudice exists with young founders. The preference is to hire employees who “reflect” the passion, interest and the growth plan set by the founder. Perhaps one hiring requirement is loyalty to the founders “cult of personality” whereas the executive is more likely to expose the flaws in the leader’s genius. Hiring loyalists with reflective personas to the leader come with a harsh bite. Within any organization, a hiring preference for less diversification and a greater personality match to that of the leader creates business conflicts and people management issues that arise later, especially when the business is under stress and most vulnerable. Seeking out and engaging with an experienced executive long-term will be well worth the time and investment.
If you liked this blog, please share on social media. If you are a struggling business owner, sales manager or a sales professional, let’s talk. I am Will Harley, with Harley-Consulting, a growth services company. With over 20 years of business leadership experience, I leverage my experience to help owners achieve their goals. Sign up just to talk. Leave a comment; I promise to reply immediately.