Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Experience vs. Innovation: Why the fight? (with a nod to Julian Bond)

When did experience and innovation become mutually exclusive?

America seems to be in a sweeping frame of mind. Historic elections and failing industry have seen the recent head-rolling of incumbent politicians and ruined executives. While voters and boards of directors are exercising their rights to enable change based on perceived poor performance, in Motown we seem to take a different tack.

For some time now, I’ve watched companies swapping out seasoned workers for starry-eyed industry entrants as if experienced employees were yesterday’s underwear.

Could it be a Michigan thing? For those of you outside our economically eroded region, things here haven’t been good since 9/11. We’ve had seven years of what the rest of the country has seen in the last ten months. So, I’d understand if company leaders were jittery about their bottom lines and saw trading in higher-priced staff for rookies half their cost (and age) as a viable way to tighten spending. But my sense is that it’s more than finances.

Do know that I’m not talking about companies that downsize based on job performance criteria. Baby Boomer, Gen Y, long-term or short; if you’re not producing, then you ought not stay. But to sweep out entire levels of senior staff based on assumptions about fresh thinking (young = do, old = can’t) seems…well…stupid.

A headline on Yahoo News recently proclaimed, “Expertise Trumps Ideology in Obama’s Early Picks.” I wavered between shouting a literal “yahoo!” and simply saying “Duh.” He is about to run the most powerful nation in the world, so who do you expect he’s going to choose to help him do that: someone with proven experience in getting things done or someone with a pocketful of ideas unaware of the subtle differences between implementation and execution?

Give me the experience that will support my vision and ideas that enable action.

Let’s say you’re a new parent gearing up for your first night out on the town since your child’s arrival. When seeking a baby sitter, you want someone who’s not only taken classes on how to babysit, but perhaps has younger siblings, brings references from neighbors s/he has babysat for or is even a friend of yours with kids of his/her own. You don’t want to come home to find your child unattended, a party in your house and the sitter making whoopee with some stranger in the back.

You want to know that your Rules of Order for parenting your child are adhered to and executed by the sitter. So it appears for our president-to-be. So it should be for today’s companies.

Thought in action: Let’s keep Julian Bond

Please note that my musings go beyond the confines of corporate America and extend to small businesses, the nonprofit arena and community organizations alike. In fact this was one of those I’ve-been-thinking-about-X-lately blogs that I wrote just for me until I heard Jeff Johnson’s commentary on the Tom Joyner Morning Show today.

I’d read recently that Benjamin Jealous is going to take over the helm at the national NAACP. What I didn’t know was that Julian Bond has decided to step down from the board. Jeff went on to share his and another colleague’s reasons that Julian must stay. I agree with them.

As I’ve ranted above, there are certain times in which experience does matter. When it comes to the history of Africans in America, I’d say that Julian’s seasoned perspective will be imperative to supporting the execution of Benjamin’s vision in the days to come. Those who feel that this is not (at all!) the time to lose a voice like Julian’s from this critical vantage point are encouraged to call the national NAACP at 877-NAACP-98. For more information about the NAACP, visit http://www.naacp.org/.

Back to my experience vs. innovation rant…

A vision of how the world, a small business or large corporation looks in the future should walk hand-in-hand with acumen for creating real change. I believe in a saying I heard years ago: “A fish rots from the head down.”

If a company isn’t generating results, could it be leadership’s fault? Are the employees in place able to recognize and affirm talent? Realize and release a lack thereof? Are the standards of accountability constantly shifting? Are potential leaders nurtured or chased off by frightened supervisors? Is everyone at the company obligated to understand what’s happening in the world outside the company walls? Is the goal truly satisfying the customer or packaging our own complacency so that we appear cutting edge? Is there anybody on board unafraid to tell the emperor s/he’s naked? If the emperor isn’t listening, is there a balancing authority that can escort him/her out?

If a fish rots from the head down and not the inside out, then relevant experience and the ability to innovate should be looked at employee by employee, from top to bottom. Staff value should be based on individual contributions and not generational stereotypes. I wonder if industry has succumbed to promoting the easy appearance of success as opposed to striving for true measures of accomplishment.

I obviously don't believe that innovation and experience are mutually exclusive. Nor, to me, does the history of this country and our people reflect that either. I'd say that if we're going to get anywhere, we need great ideas and great people who know how to turn them into great actions. It's especially nice when both abilities show up in a single individual.