These days I am always slightly amused about how much emphasis is placed on youth in business. It seems more and more that people over 50 are considered over the hill and are being replaced by the new young “guns”, many of whom are still wet behind the ears. Why is this? Do we really believe that the cumulative life (and business) experience of a 50, 60 or even 80 year old is less valuable than a kid who can produce an iPhone “app”?

I remember during the tech wreck of the early 2000s how one stock market analyst was quoted as saying that there is a “new paradigm” about valuing internet stocks. Apparently, you couldn’t value them like “old economy” stocks. No longer was it about earnings, assets and debt levels – it was about “how the world will change” as a result of the new technologies. This analyst was in her late twenties and relatively inexperienced. She was a convincing speaker, however, and this helped her deliver her sermon to a wide audience.

The problem was she was making it up as she went along but the punters wanted to believe her (and did). She wasn’t the only one, of course. Spruiking like this lead to inflated internet stock prices and an eventual fall in the Nasdaq index of nearly 75%. Even 10 years later the Nasdaq is still trading at only 50% of its high point in 2000. Billions were lost. How was this possible?

Warren Buffet, nearly 70 at the time, called it “irrational exuberance” and did not participate. He warned that the out sized returns experienced by technology investors during 1998 and 1999 had dulled them into complacency. “After a heady experience of that kind,” he said, “normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice.” A lifetime of experience had taught him that it was a bubble that would soon burst. He was criticised for being out of touch but he was right and the punters were wrong. Only years at the coalface teaches you these types of lessons.

After 25 years in business I still regularly seek the advice and counsel of people who are more experienced than me. I have learnt a lot with this approach and avoided mistakes that I otherwise would have made. My formula is quite simple – I half-jokingly call it my “virtuous circle of decision making”. It goes like this. I figure out the “why” (the motive) myself. I ask my mentors for help with molding the “what” (the objective) and I seek answers from more technically adept people to help with the “how” (how to put it on the ground). It works great for me.

History has a way of repeating itself. The “old timers” have seen multiple boom and bust economic cycles and the recycling of fashion, movies, music and other trends from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s for a contemporary audience. They have an encyclopaedia of life and commercial experience that can be invaluable to businesses of all sizes. The axiom that you can’t put an old head on young shoulders is sage advice. Why not tap into the wisdom and skills that suitably qualified “grey-hairs” can provide?  The downside is limited, but the upside – mmmm…

Have a great week!