Why ageing is good for your career

September 3, 2019

Every year of experience brings clarity in purpose, greater empathy and patience.

I recently negotiated with a 28-year-old. Tom is a successful entrepreneur; he’s charismatic and clever. We had worked together on a project for months and had developed a friendship. I thought of him as a peer. When we came to negotiate terms, I expected him to push back; he has a reputation for toughness. But he was oddly respectful. He asked questions and suggested amendments and appreciated when I agreed. I’m used to negotiating with peers who argue; sometimes they’ll even become emotional. As Tom and I sat in a cafe completing our deal, I scratched my head and pondered why this had been so easy. Then it hit me: “Tom thinks I’m old!”

I’ll admit it: I have recently crossed the four zero threshold. I’ve been too busy running my business and managing my young family to think much about it. I’m still the same person I was 10 years ago, just with more experience and a lot more sense.

Sitting with Tom that afternoon, I began to realise there are benefits in being older in business. When I work with people ahead of me by a decade or more, I group them into a different category from my peers. I’m more likely to assume they know what they’re talking about, and will manage my interactions with heightened care and respect.

This doesn’t mean I’m less likely to form friendships with senior colleagues; quite the opposite. Many people seem to become less driven by ego, more focused on others and easier to connect with as they age. I’m talking stereotypes, of course. But it appeared as if Tom had bucketed me into a stereotype of someone he should listen to. I wasn’t a peer; I’d acquired that magic power of seniority.

I felt chuffed to realise that ageing has an upside and started thinking about other benefits. I spoke with three business leaders, each in their 50s, to find out what else I can look forward to.

You understand what makes you ‘tick’

Steve Fanale is founder and chief executive of Drive Yello, a logistics start-up that handles delivery for Woolworths, BWS, Better Home Living and many others.

“I’ve had more than 20 years of experience working in digital innovation and I’ve built three businesses,” Fanale says. “Earlier in my career, I tried a bunch of things to chase money and notoriety. Now I’m 50, I approach business with a different motivation. I know that I’m driven by solving business problems with technology; it’s what makes me tick. This clarity drives me through the hard times, and my ability to articulate purpose motivates my team to drive the organisation.”

You become much better with people

Melissa Pye runs the 10x Accelerator Program at UNSW Sydney. In her 30-year career, Pye has worked in senior marketing roles at a number of companies and has built two businesses of her own.

“As I’ve aged, I’ve become more accepting of others and the different ways people interact and respond to things,” she says. “I used to be very task focused but now I’m more empathetic and build deeper relationships. This patience always leads to better and faster outcomes.”

Fanale adds: “As you age, you recognise the pointlessness of ego. When I was younger, I thought I was the best at everything. Now I seek out people who are better than me, and I really appreciate and reward someone who is good at their job.”

People’s perception of you will change

Echoing my experience with Tom, Fanale says it can be easier to win people over when you’re older. “To build Yello, I’ve had to bring on board big enterprise clients. I deal with senior executives in their mid-40s to late 50s, and I’m sure that being in their peer group helps. They can see I’m not a fly-by-night start-up. I’ve had some success; I understand how contracts need to be put together and they perceive me and my company as a safe bet.”

It helps to know what you’re doing

Oscar de Vries runs Oscar Razor, a locally owned subscription-based shave club. De Vries is grateful for the decades he’s had to make mistakes. “Every year I look back [on] the year before, and can’t believe how naive I was,” he says. “There’s no way I could achieve what I’m doing now with what I knew 10 years ago.”

De Vries says that with age, he has come to appreciate learning. “Of course, it’s important to read books and listen to podcasts, but a lot of learning is done on the job. You have to live through some experiences to understand the nuances of how to handle different situations and get results.”

Pye is sure that her breadth of experience would have put her ahead of other candidates for her current role. “I’ve worked in big and small companies, started businesses and lived in different countries. I’ve kept evolving and learning at every turn. My age is a great resource.”

Speaking with Fanale, Pye and de Vries makes me look forward to ageing, rather than fearing it. At first, it stung to realise that Tom perceived me as senior to him. But with experience comes clarity of purpose, greater empathy and patience, and often enhanced confidence in your ability, all of which lead to increased happiness, more job satisfaction and faster impact.

Originally published in AFR BOSS Magazine

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