We all think we can do it ourselves, but sometimes you just need to tap someone who can do it better. To illustrate, let me paint a picture to help explain how this often plays out.
Business travel, especially international, is something I’ve always enjoyed. I know, some of you are rolling your eyes at this point. It just came easily to me. Delays, equipment changes, layovers, questionable food, etc., no big deal to me. Just keep moving forward. The one downside to frequent travel (42 weeks/year on average) was keeping up on the projects around the house. Most of which I had zero knowledge how to do. I’d ask my friends or someone at one of the home improvement stores; however, it never quite turned out how I had envisioned. Especially for my lovely wife. She would give me the “nice try” look and call in the expert. Someone who knew what they were doing, had done it enough to be efficient, and could complete the project in a timely way and at the level of quality to meet my wife’s expectations.
Then I discovered YouTube. Wow, they actually walked you through the process visually. I could rewind a section again and again until I got it—or so I thought. Most of the videos I watched were easy enough to comprehend, like minor plumbing, basic electrical, and drywall repair. The more difficult and technical project videos were omitting certain key elements of the process that were critical to the success of the project. I didn’t have the experience to perform at a higher expectation level nor the time or resources to fail and continually redo what I had previously done. This experience reminded me of a person I met early in my career.
Walking the Line
Fresh out of college and ready to make my mark in the food industry, I stepped into the role of deboning line supervisor for a poultry processor in central California. I had never seen a cone boning line before and was feeling a bit overwhelmed: 45 employees spread out over a raised platform with very sharp knives in their hands was quite intimidating.
I had worked on ranches, pack stations, and even spent two summers working with my aunt, uncle, and cousin in a traveling circus. I was used to assimilating into a cohesive group; however, this was an entirely new experience, and I had to prove myself worthy of the responsibility I was assigned. I decided the best way to start was to walk the line and introduce myself to each of my swing shift employees.
The line speed was approximately 55–60 birds per minute; therefore, the folks didn’t have much time or patience to chat with the “new one,” as they called me. After receiving some quick glances, nods, grunts, and in some cases being completely ignored, I knew this was going to take time. At this point, I decided to make walking the line my daily routine to address immediate concerns, watch each position for improvement opportunities, and gain an understanding of the overall process.
Two months into the daily walks, the folks began to smile and answer my greeting, and the ones who ignored me at first nodded in acknowledgement of my presence. One individual in particular was still reserved when I made my daily greeting. Sophia was the crew foreperson and was in her late 40s. I could tell she was highly regarded by the way the other members of the crew treated her. This became evident to me by their mannerisms and the attention paid to Sophia when she spoke: She emanated quiet confidence and subtle leadership. I admired those traits and wanted to gain insight. We slowly began to have expanded conversations about life outside of daily work topics.
Six months into my role, Sophia turned to me as I greeted her and spoke in a hushed tone. Over the noise of the floor, she asked if she could talk to me in private after the shift was over. She told me she would come by my office. I thanked her and waited intently for our conversation.
The moment finally came when she arrived at the door. The manager I shared the office with politely exited, and I left the door open. Sophia sat down, took a breath, dropped her gaze to the floor, and told me she was going to retire at the end of the month. She was heading out of state to live with her daughter and spend time with her grandson. My mind was spinning from the news: How would I replace the most revered and respected member of the crew? She was an incredible asset to the organization and to my development.
Sophia raised her gaze from the floor and looked me in the eye. She softly said that she had a perfect replacement. A friend of hers had previously worked for the company in the position Sophia currently held. She explained how her friend had mentored her and helped her become the leader she was today. Sophia’s friend Gloria had moved back into the area after spending the last 5 years out of state and was the perfect fit; however, she was in her late 50s.
Been There, Done That
After consulting with my production director and the human resources manager, I decided to bring Gloria in for an interview. Her age was not apparent; she moved quickly into the conference room and took a seat. After a few moments of reviewing her past work history and previous experience with the company, I decided to go off script. Starting with the glowing recommendation she had received from Sophia, I asked her what made her previous tenure so successful. She chuckled quietly and then told me her experience as frontline management. “Been there, done that,” she said.
Starting right out of high school, Gloria applied for a production job with the company. The hours were long, the environment was cold, and the employees were tough. She loved it. All Gloria wanted to do was take over the position of deboning line foreperson. After 5 years on the job, she was offered the position. For the next 35 years, she thrived in her role and created lasting friendships, garnishing great respect from her crew as well as from the revolving door of managers. I was convinced she was the one and offered her the position. During my 2-year stint as supervisor, I came to respect and depend on Gloria’s steady hand and incredible production knowledge. Gloria helped my career in ways I could never thank her for. A few years later, after I had moved on to a position with a different company, I heard through a mutual contact that Gloria had retired and relocated. I still think of her today and how she had such an incredible influence on my management style.
Over my 30-year career, I have had the pleasure to work with a variety of older people in numerous countries who were highly competent contributors to the businesses they were employed by—individuals who worked in production, logistics, finance, procurement, and quality management. Their dedication, foresight, insight, and process knowledge were palpable.
Is Age a Competitive Advantage or Competitive Disadvantage?
The Harvard Business Review published an article entitled “The Case for Hiring Older Workers”1 in which the authors posed a question to their clients: “Is age a competitive advantage or competitive disadvantage in your organization?” According to the authors, over two-thirds of the companies considered older age a competitive disadvantage. I was surprised at their findings; that certainly wasn’t my experience. Was I just fortunate to meet an exceptional group of older employees in my travels?
The authors, Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic,1 countered their findings with the following statement:
“The scientific evidence2 on this issue shows differently: For most people, raw mental horsepower declines after the age of 30, but knowledge and expertise—the main predictors of job performance—keep increasing even beyond the age of 80. There is also ample evidence to assume that traits like drive and curiosity are catalysts for new skill acquisition, even during late adulthood. When it comes to learning new things, there is just no age limit, and the more intellectually engaged people remain when they are older, the more they will contribute to the labor market.”
Based on my experiences, I agreed with this evidence. I had quite a number of interactions with older employees who enjoyed learning new skills and sharing their knowledge with younger employees.
Knowledge and Expertise
According to Allen Ward in 2009, “Knowledge is understanding information. Knowledge is taking the information contained in multiple sources and putting it together, so it makes some kind of sense. A lot of M.B.A. students have knowledge. They can obtain information from different sources and convert it into knowledge, but knowing about something and actually being able to do something are two different things.”
Regarding expertise, Ward stated, “Expertise is being able to take the knowledge and learnings from past experiences and being able to apply it to a particular situation. You can’t buy expertise—you earn it through years of doing. Malcolm Gladwell talks about needing 10,000 hours of practice before you become proficient at a skill—that’s expertise. You can have all the knowledge and information, but actually using it and learning from it is how you gain expertise.
Expertise comes from making mistakes—and learning from them.
Expertise comes from having huge successes—and understanding what made them successful.
Expertise comes from learning from other experts and watching them operate.
Expertise comes from applying your knowledge and information and watching the outcomes.
And that’s where expertise comes in.”
In my opinion, providing your younger employees with an opportunity to learn from a person who has both expertise and knowledge allows them to advance faster in their position and contribute to the whole organization.
Transfer Knowledge—Before It Walks out the Door
The following quotes provide an interesting insight to the value experienced employees can provide to an organization and the potential consequences to the employee and the organization when they are “retired” too early.
“When highly skilled subject matter experts, engineers, and managers leave their organizations, they take with them years of hard-earned, experience-based knowledge—much of it undocumented and irreplaceable. Organizations can thereby lose a good part of their competitive advantage. The tsunami of ‘boomer’ retirements has created the most visible, urgent need to transfer such knowledge to the next generation. But there is also an ongoing torrent of acquisitions, layoffs, and successions—not to mention commonplace promotions and transfers—all of which involve the loss of essential expertise.”3
“Many people, particularly those who have enjoyed long and meaningful careers, do like to work. In the wise words of Stephen Hawking: ‘Work gives you meaning and purpose, and life is empty without it.’ It represents an opportunity to give value to others and the community; it gives you a network of friends and associates to be with; and it gives you something to do with your intellectual and physical energy. Why would we want to retire if we love our work?”1
“According to the survey, 80% of respondents view older employees as crucial to their success. Not surprisingly, employers are concerned with the expected loss of talent. In fact, over half (54%) believe the loss of talent due to retiring workers will be more significant than other labor market risks over the next five years. Additionally, 50% expect difficulty finding workers with similar knowledge and skills over the next five years; 48% worry about the loss of organization-specific knowledge.” – Willis Towers Watson, 2018
“We argue that companies must bring older people back to work and give them meaningful, important jobs. The myth propagated by the retirement industry is that people over the age of 65 should retire. Despite the billions of dollars spent convincing us that our ‘golden years’ should involve travel, golf, and sitting around the pool, research actually shows that people who stop working and retire often suffer from depression, heart attacks, and a general malaise of not having as much purpose in their lives.”1
The Importance of Experience in the Face of Crisis
The COVID-19 pandemic sent a traumatic shock wave on a global level, and the food industry suffered as well. The tragic loss of employees, families, and friends, factory shutdowns, shortage of raw materials, increased employee health protocols, and the collapse of a large section of the foodservice sector were huge challenges. As the world and the food industry begin to adjust to the ongoing requirements for employee safety, increased food safety measures, vaccine mandates, and increased pricing for logistics, experienced and knowledgeable subject-matter experts are in high demand.
According to Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., and U.S. Food and Drug Administration Deputy Commissioner for Food Policy and Response Frank Yiannas in their article “The New Era of Smarter Food Safety,”4 “Another New Era focus identified in the blueprint is the safety of foods ordered online and delivered directly to consumers. We’ve seen this trend steadily increase over the years, but it has skyrocketed as families sheltering in place order foods from restaurants and grocery stores online and by phone, often for the first time. So, this question becomes even more important—how do we ensure that these foods are produced, packed, and transported safely directly to consumers? Here again, the need for best practices has been accelerated by COVID-19.”
Who better to drive the focus on the “need for best practices” that is now “accelerated by COVID-19”? You guessed it: employees who are knowledgeable and have the expertise! Bottom line: They’ve “been there and done that”! Older, experienced employees have had to face numerous challenges in their careers, adapting to local, regional, national, and global crises. Think of the events in last 30 years that have had a direct effect on the food industry:
- Escherichia coli contamination in ground beef
- Listeria monocytogenes in fresh produce
- September 11, 2001
- Mad cow disease
- Foreign-material recalls
- Financial market collapse in 2009
The folks who were the “boots on the ground” had to get focused, gather data, initiate a strategy, implement it, adjust on the fly, and verify the plan worked; these are the ones your organization needs to face the current pandemic challenges. You don’t gain that type of knowledge and expertise in college or from a YouTube video. They had to live it, struggle, keep their personal life together, walk into their place of business, and face whatever the day had in store for them. These folks have the “scars” to show what they have been through.
Are they the easiest to deal with sometimes? Not always. Most times, they just want you to get to the point quickly, because that is what they do. They are confident in their ability to manage a crisis situation because they have experienced what it takes to work through it and have the knowledge to correctly address it. I recently read the book Getting Into Leadership Shape, written by Ed Beard and Janet McCracken,5 in which they covered this issue: "The irony of confidence is that it can only develop in the realms of fear and the unknown, two dynamics that basic human nature works hard to avoid. Confidence grows when you act and attempt challenges that are difficult and fearful, when you recognize a purpose and venture outside your comfort zone to accomplish it. Experience is often the qualifier that moves a challenge from unknown to known, from uncomfortable to more comfortable.”
How to Utilize Talents and Experience
In my experience, the executives of a company who realize the importance of leveraging the knowledge and expertise of their seasoned employees put a program of blending newer employees with highly experienced professionals into practice to guide and educate the younger employees.
From Bersin and Chamorro-Premuzic: “Beside the value and competence older employees can bring to the workforce, there is the issue of cognitive diversity. Few things of value have ever been accomplished by individuals working alone. The vast majority of our advancements—whether in science, business, arts, or sports—are the result of coordinated human activity, or people working together as a cohesive unit. The best way to maximize team output is to increase cognitive diversity, which is significantly more likely to occur if you can get people of different ages (and experiences) working together.”1
A friend of mine owns a midsized individually quick-frozen vegetable processing company and said she can see what her employees are all about when a crisis hits. Some shut down, others panic, and the ones who stay calm and focused are the ones she promotes and hangs onto. When she brings on a new employee, she immediately places the new hire with one of her older and experienced employees. If she hires a manager prospect, she places that person with one of her experienced managers to gain process knowledge and provide guidance in challenging situations to increase their management expertise.
My first season as a mule packer in the southern High Sierra range, I learned a valuable lesson from an older packer, Glen Jackson, with whom I was partnered. Our pack mules were led down the trail in a line (one after the other) in what is referred to as “strings,” usually five mules in a string. The lead rope of each mule in the string is tied with a bowline knot (won’t cinch down when pulled tight) around the neck of the mule in front of them, until you come to the lead mule, in which the packer holds that rope from the horse or mule they’re riding.
After the mules were packed individually, we would “string” the mules together. Glen told me to make sure I didn’t have too much slack between my mules because they might step over the rope and cause a “wreck” (term for when your string became tangled up). I didn’t take that to heart, and two miles down the trail, I had my first wreck. My mule, Sammy, in the back stepped over the rope with her front left, pulled back, and caused the entire string to fall down on the trail. Thankfully, we were in a flat section and not on a cliff. I jumped down, tied up my horse, and pulled out my knife to start cutting the lead ropes.
Glen yelled at me to stop! I did. He said it wasn’t bad and just let them figure it out. To my surprise, one by one each of my five mules stood up. He told me to carefully walk back to Sammy and lift her leg over the rope and retie it on the mule in front of her. It worked, and we went down the trail to bring supplies to a hungry trail crew. If Glen hadn’t been there, I have no idea how it would have turned out if I just started cutting the ropes. Most likely, the whole string would have run back to the pack station, and the trail crew would have been without food that night. If I had listened to Glen’s preventive advice, or not listened to his instructions on how to deal with the wreck I was in, the outcome would have been much different.
Some folks in the food industry have made a slow transition from reaction to prevention over the past 20 years. When a management team has not realized the financial advantages of investing in preventive measures, they end up paying an escalated reactionary cost. In many cases, the price is double what they would have paid to prevent an issue when it was identified, prior to an incident. This is where a knowledgeable expert who has been through this type of issue becomes a competitive advantage. Just remember what Gloria said: “Been there, done that.”
- Chamorro-Premuzic, T. and A. Furnham. 2006. “Intellectual Competence and the Intelligent Personality: A Third Way in Differential Psychology.” Rev Gen Psychol 10(3): 251–267.
- Leonard-Barton, D., W.C. Swap, and G. Barton, Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company's Deep Smarts (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014).
- Beard, E. and J. McCracken, Getting Into Leadership Shape: With 15 Exercises to Strengthen Your Character and Competence (North Hampton, NH: Mindstir Media, 2016).
John W. Raede Ph.D., is the principal and owner of Raede and Associates and has over 30 years of knowledge and expertise in the food industry. His background is in design and implementation of supply chain quality management strategies and preventive food safety programs. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.