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The best bosses never look at a birth certificate

Illustration by Rey Rivera

MANILA, Philippines - A former colleague from my Coca-Cola days recently reached out to me. He was in the market for a new CEO role and asked if I would pass on his CV to some HR contacts. I, of course, obliged.

One HR leader wrote back to me that “he has a great CV but I see he is now 50 years old, so we don’t want to invest in someone that old.”

I was flabbergasted. Where has this guy been living, in a cave?

Age is so passé. So 1970s when it comes to hiring. I mean, look at the world around us.

Fifty-plus is too old? I guess somebody forgot to tell this to Clint Eastwood, who at 85 keeps winning Oscars making great movies (his latest being American Sniper), and who is legendary for outworking everyone around him and having the most energy on the set. Oh, and by the way, he is kicking the butts of all the “younger” directors out there. And he is a mere 35 years beyond the 50-year-old category!

Putting age aside, who would I rather have in my business? On the one hand I can have a guy like Fred Uytengsu of Alaska Milk. Fred is in his mid-50s. He’s a world-class triathlete. He’s so damn fit; he could beat his entire Alaska Aces basketball team in a physical-fitness test. In fact, I am fairly sure he could beat the entire PBA in an endurance competition! The man has the energy of a 25-year-old, the health of an 18-year-old and yet all that wisdom of having run a business for 30 years! And this is what matters. Not the date on a birth certificate!

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Hiring a fit 50- or 60-year-old is the best deal one can make. You get all the youthful energy and vitality, yet on top all the wisdom and experience to go with it. It’s an unbeatable package.

The other option is to perhaps hire one of the “young” people in the building I work in. It’s a building full of under-30s who carry nothing but bags of donuts and fast food on the elevator. They can’t walk up one flight of stairs so sadly they have to take the elevator. They are constantly sweating and wheezing for breath just getting up and walking around. They can’t run around the block. They have low energy and are continually calling in sick and suffer poor productivity. They may be under 30 but from a healthcare perspective, they’re already a walking heart attack or Type 2 diabetes waiting to happen. And the fact that they are under 30 is meaningful to the business?

For a business, it’s about managing risk and maximizing gain. It’s about reducing healthcare costs. Driving productivity. Getting the most out of every employee.  I would take Fred Uytengsu over the young and out-of-shape 20-something any day. And this is the winning approach. Look beyond the birth certificate.

But the same is also true in reverse. A birth certificate means nothing when it comes to young talent.  Who set the rules that said a person needs “X years of experience” before they can do a given job? Alexander the Great ruled the world at 21 and was dead by 32. Mark Zuckerberg took Facebook public and made his first billion at age 28. I have today a talented young Filipina department head who is only 24 years old. She replaced a “seasoned” veteran with 20 years’ experience in the role. And she has left his performance in the dust in every single respect. Talent trumps experience.

They say age doesn’t matter, or age is just a number. Damn straight.

The best never look at a birth certificate when considering a prospective candidate because they know it means next to nothing. You can be 53 going on 30 like Fred Uytengsu or you can be 26 going on 65 like any number of young executives I see.

One can look purely at years of experience or look at raw talent, knowing good young people always rise to a challenge and succeed.

The best look at where a potential hire is going, not where they are. And a birth certificate is useless in this respect.

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Questions and comments may be directed to Facebook, James Michael Lafferty.

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