Get Woke! Wisdom Is NOT a Soft Skill

*Originally published on LinkedIn March 20th, 2019.

Over the past two months I’ve become more acutely aware of something insidious infiltrating the job market that caught me by surprise. There’s a social injustice creeping in that’s not being talked about enough and carries huge long term risks if not addressed: Ageism. For some background, there’s two articles I read (and recommend!) which have inspired me to pipe in on the subject.

First, I read and liked (alongside hundreds of thousands of others) an article by Louis Loizou called “I’m not 54. I’m 22 with 32 years experience.” Today, I was pleased to find more discussion on the subject from Kevin Chesters called “Don’t just say your age, sell it.” Big props Kevin and Louis, you guys are raising an important issue and I, for one, think your points of view are spot on. However, this issue goes beyond just the creative industry contexts that you’ve experienced. In my opinion its hitting the tech sector as well with so many young entrepreneurs and innovators in high level leadership roles. 

Now, I don’t think the issue is overt/willful and/or deliberate/purposeful discrimination. At least not in my experience. I think its an outcome of hubris, egoism, myopic view, and/or a form of macro recency effect. What I mean is that as tech evolves it seems that being considered “qualified” for certain roles is becoming more dependent on having some experience with the most recent gadget or app, and less about having been successful for longer durations of tech evolutions and iterations of the predecessor gadgets and apps of the past, which is better evidence of adaptability and overall tech competencies. 

Is knowing that newest gadget or app the real hard skill or soft skill? What about proven adaptability and aptitude? Just because they are transferable, are they soft skills? Or hard skills? As my daddy used to say regarding aptitude and ability to learn, “Son, everyone simply is not born with the same tools.” I second that. And common sense isn’t common enough, either. As a leader with a plethora of talent evaluation experience, I assess candidates’ fit based on evidence of their enduring qualities and ability to learn and adapt when assessing them for a role as much (if not more) than simply the immediate knowledge they have. Its myopic to assess strictly on immediacy. I personally put just as much weight on indicators of potential as I do immediate capabilities. Then again, I’m the type of leader who is happy to train, mentor, and develop folks I hire. Many time-starved hiring managers don’t want to belabor themselves with a requirement to have to lead in that way, though, and that’s a whole other subject.

As I’ve been job searching, I have definitely been surprised by some of the interactions I’ve had which made it very clear to me that the person I was dealing with had no idea of the value of my experience. I’ve had several humbling (frustrating) occasions where I’ve been asked cookie cutter questions in interviews about managing and leading by hiring managers who didn’t have the level of experience in those areas that I do. I’ve found myself trying to explain things which require a certain amount of prerequisite experience to understand and were clearly lost on these gatekeepers to my next paycheck… because of their inexperience. I’ve been dumbfounded by the seemingly Sisyphean endeavor to get younger business professionals to understand the value they had in front of them, which simply didn’t register. Its such a catch-22. That is, perhaps I should just “play the game” and dumb it down… I do need a paycheck eventually. But if I do that, I’m kinda short changing myself by not fully conveying my value which should distinguish me from my likely younger candidate competitors. It is what it is.

So, here’s what I’ve reconciled which I hope resonates with you: Let’s shift this train’s direction before it goes off the rails. Let’s proliferate wisdom, judgement, and decision making as sought after buzz words (hard skills!) for what’s important in the workforce. Nearly every job description carries some number of “years of experience” for qualification. But what about wisdom? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a job description that used the word wisdom as a qualifier at all. What about proven judgement and decision making skills? Those are the REAL quality skills we expect from experience, right? I mean, I could have lots of experience doing something to a mediocre and haphazard degree. I could be a middle of the pack performer who doesn’t make great decisions but meet the minimum experience requirements. Is that what you want, hiring manager? If not, you may need to change your scoring criteria.

I realize that not all jobs require the kind of skills and background that the ones I’m seeking do. However, even entry-level workers these days are faced with decision-making opportunities, even if they are low impact ones. All kinds of things occur in day to day business that challenges the judgement and tests the wisdom of professionals at every level. Young professionals, I value your drive, creativity, and what you bring to the table that is different from me. Here’s some advice, though: if you fail to properly assess the value of experiential wisdom, judgement, and adaptability in your candidate pools you will hurt the potential of your organizations.

We can still go fast and break things… but if you’re repeating mistakes of the past that could have been avoided by including more “tenured” professionals in your decision processes, aren’t you just wasting time and money? Aren’t you impeding your own progress timeline? Just as we strive these days to deliberately foster organizational diversity when it comes to race, orientation, and gender, so should we “get woke” and purposefully seek to harness the value of the wisdom and decision making of the professionals who have been around long enough to have already seen and navigated the same kind of challenges we face today in their past. Transformation and innovation ain’t new, they’ve been happening throughout all human history.

If you’re sleeping on the value of seasoned workforce professionals, beware! Your competition may not be. While you’re repeating old mistakes and reinventing the wheel, make sure you smile and waive as they roll past you having avoided similar pitfalls thanks to the wisdom and experience of the “older” professionals they’ve built into their talent pool. Just sayin.

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