Gauteng Business News

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WORKFORCE: Unleashing the Old, Bold and Super-skilled


Recent Gauteng Business News

IT’S a no-brainer. When skills are scarce you retain as well as train. Yet the corporate norm is often to allow – sometimes encourage – older managers and skilled specialists to retire early.

A haemorrhage of 50-something achievers looks like a self-inflicted wound. But there is no sign that major companies are eager to stop the bleeding any time soon. The trend to a late-50s exit is now so pronounced, action is required directly from the top. That means the CEO, chairman and board.

The key questions, of course, are ‘what’s stopping them?’ and ‘why should they buck the trend’? Why force a 60 year old CEO to retire when he or she is doing an excellent job and then rehire him or her as a consultant?

Perhaps corporate leaders hesitate as initiatives to retain older talent seem contrary to national policy.

When many countries were looking to raise the retirement bar, South Africa brought down the eligibility age for a man’s state pension from 65 to 60, whereas in the USA retirement age is going to be raised to 69!

Reasons are not hard to guess. One has to be our high youth unemployment rate. A 2008 OECD survey put the rate close to 50%, with an expectation that 53,4% of black Africans between 15 and 24 would be unemployed by the end of 2009 today there are 15 million young people under the age of 15 in South Africa.

The arithmetic looks simple ... if you create room at the top through mid-50s retirement, trickle-down effects must surely open opportunities for the youth.

However, you don’t build a vibrant economy and create millions of jobs by discarding skills. Remove skills and you remove the prospect of sustained growth.

Talent plus experience enables expansion, creating more jobs for more people, including school-leavers and graduates.

There are many other reasons for active steps to retain older talent.

Many business leaders make great efforts to wire their companies into global developments and world best practice. The trend that goes unnoticed is the incredible value unlocked by resourceful old people.

Warren Buffet (now close to 81) was nearly 70 when he pulled off one of his biggest wealth-enhancing coups – defying techno bulls by investing in under-priced Old Economy companies before the dotcom bubble burst. At the time, commentators said he was losing his touch.

Wallace McCain, co-founder of the McCain Foods empire, was 64 when he left to build another Canadian food giant, Maple Leaf Foods. He died recently at 81 and was working until shortly before his death.

Newly appointed IMF boss Christine Lagarde is a “spring chicken” at 55 – the age many South Africans step down.

The flip side of the coin is also true. The older executive should know when to quit the most recent example being Rupert Murdoch at eighty!

Global experience shows there is little substance to the criticism that older people become set in their ways and lack the energy to pursue new directions.

Red Bull billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz was 48 and working in the cosmetics industry when he decided to go into the tonic drinks business.

Takichiro Mori, the man who joined the 1990s super-rich on the back of the Japanese property boom, was a 55-year-old academic until deciding to show the real estate sector how it was done.

The chances are that many of our grey panthers are also eager for new challenges. After all, they’ve been psychologically prepared for new commitments.

Business pages are inundated with retirement planning articles indicating that many people in their 50s can expect to live into their 90s and will probably run out of savings long before then.

Wise old heads will therefore be receptive to the idea of exciting alternatives to a corporate exit at age 55 or 60.

New roles beckon as mentor, executive coach, trainer or trouble-shooter. A meaningful Human Resources specialisation is opening up – career guidance and counselling for the over-55s.

Many forced early retirees today are owner/managers of very successful small to medium businesses.

Numerous avenues can be explored, enabling these pre-retirees to contribute their skills and ensure corporate continuity for another 10 years or more.

Following the publication of the King III report on corporate governance, many companies are looking to strengthen the board committees on risk, audit and sustainability.

A risk-based approach to business sustainability is becoming the norm. However, can younger executives and directors properly assess risk when they may have only 3 to 5 years’ experience?

Growing market volatility suggests 20- or 30-year events have to be reckoned with. But how, when your ‘institutional memory’ is off playing golf?

Leveraging ‘the new old’ to complement a younger managerial generation has become a business imperative. It’s a strategic issue. Skills shortages are constraining growth – that of the economy and, I suspect, of many major companies.

Globally strategic leadership in South Africa is urgently required. It sounds ironic, but executives and directors especially may have to be bold to unleash the old.

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