The Value of Seniority

Jan 21, 2009
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

I remember when I was 24 years old. Having graduated, and paid for college single-handedly with no outside assistance, I felt I was smarter than 90% of the world’s population having accomplished what I did.

Once I secured my first job, I was humbled in discovering I would have to be re-initiated into the culture of the corporate workforce. Suddenly, I was not that smart any more.

Looking back at my first jobs before I reached the age of 28, I think I did fine.

But I’m much more sophisticated in my approach, stealth in my tactics, and enormously more successful in my achieving that which I set out to do today, than I ever could have imagined back then. In other words while I was “just fine,” I’m now far more professional and capable. I’m well beyond just “fine.”

That’s not to boast. But rather a statement attributing to the value of tenure in a career and the benefit of honing your craft for decades coupled with maturity and years of ongoing, continuing education.

This year I will be 50 years old. I still feel 20 and can physically do everything I did back then (although the bruises from certain sports remain longer); but I’m better than I ever was in my 20s and 30s. Much, much better.

Looking back at the last 25 years, I can now see more clearly how tenure, seniority, and decades of experience have polished, honed, sharpened, and perfected my performance both on the job with my career as well as my community, civic, and other endeavors I am active with.

Has seniority transformed my capabilities and improved by tactics and skills?

Yes, it has. If Frank Risalvato circa 1989 was to confront me in a business challenge, the Frank Risalvato of today would beat the younger version. And the junior version would not even know what hit him.

Which leads me to Captain Chesley B. Sullenberger III, pilot of the fateful U.S. Airways Flight number 1549 which was bound for my new hometown of Charlotte from New York City. The same commute those passengers were making from New York to Charlotte is the same commute I have been doing every few months for the last two years.

While Chesley may go down in history for one of the only safe water landings ever, he should also be the poster child for why companies should not hastily layoff their senior-most employees or engage in premature “pre-retirement” programs or layoffs.

A local article in the Charlotte Observer provided more details than the national news has been offering. Here are some highlights:

  1. He was 58 years old.
  2. Started as a commercial pilot in 1980 with what later became U.S. Airways
  3. His first job piloting was at age 15 — he was a “natural”
  4. Endured several cost-cutting and salary/wage freezes (he could have sought work elsewhere but he remained with the company)
  5. 28 years on the job

Now let’s compare what could have happened:

  1. U.S. Airways could have given “Sully” an early retirement package
  2. Replaced him with a 28-year-old pilot (two years younger than he was when he started)
  3. Saved lots of money on salary and benefits
  4. Applied that process across the board and saved millions in payroll.

Many human resource types I’ve dealt with might view such a balding white-haired man as “old-fashioned” or from “another era.” Those judgments often originate from human resource coordinators in their 20s and 30s.

Had the alternative took place and U.S. Airways pursued a policy of pruning its senior, executive pilots for less costly younger crews, the headlines would be dramatically different.

While many are hailing “Sully” for his deft landing. I believe he deserves notoriety for what a seasoned, tenured, “older” executive can bring to an organization.

I hope human resource representatives and managers learn the alternate lesson of this story: the realization that enormous value and storehouses of knowledge are locked up within your most senior-ranking colleagues and employees.

Do not look at immediate salary savings alone when laying off senior executives.

And next time you interview such a seasoned veteran from another company, I hope you don’t engage in the premature and foolhardy diagnosis that he or she is “too old.”

For all Sully went through with his decades at U.S. Airways, he will most likely have saved the company many hundreds of millions in litigation by avoiding the loss of life and limiting losses to that of baggage, a few bruises, some sniffles and colds, and accessories that are easily repairable and replaceable.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.