This week, the USDA documented what we all know is happening: one-third of farmers are now older than 65. While I don’t possess hard data on dealer personnel, a scan of hair hues at a dealer meeting last week shows more of the same. No news here.
But I do want to share some thoughts placed in my head by my favorite author, Malcolm Gladwell. Upon finishing his newest book, David and Goliath, I recalled a concept he shared in a previous work, Outliers.
An Outliers chapter shared how some researchers conclude that a true mastery of skill — in any field — is achieved only after 10,000 hours are first notched perfecting it. That magic number, reports Gladwell, is the “practice time” pre-requisite for greatness.
He shares numerous examples of supremacy, and the rare opportunities that lifted those individuals to such heights. Among others, there’s Microsoft Founder Bill Gates, who gained access to a computer time-share terminal at age 13. And a struggling high school rock band (whom you may know as the Beatles) who took a gig in Germany that “forced” them into playing 8-hour long sets — giving them what they most needed to evolve into something special.
“The Beatles were no good on-stage when they went over there and they were very good when they came back,” says band biographer Philip Norman. The quartet played 270 nights in Hamburg in 18 months, and by the time they arrived here 50 years ago, they’d performed live an astounding 1,200 times.
As Gladwell’s book demonstrates, the highest levels of success are not achieved as a result of natural ability nor working the hardest. Once a high talent threshold exists, the ones who skyrocket to the very top are those who actually get the chance to hone their craft. And more important, the great ones seize that opportunity while their equally talented peers squander it.
If 10,000 hours sounds daunting to you, I may have bad news. In my opinion, that figure is “too low” a number for our multi-variable and constantly changing farm equipment industry.
We’re wise to recognize that our A-plus players got to the top because they were given time to develop their talent. When our gray haired generation eventually hangs it up, it’s unrealistic to expect average personnel to rise to the occasion. For some companies, there’ll be a pending vacuum of tens of thousands of hours of instinct, skill and know-how — things no one can “shortcut” their way into. Just gotta put the time in.
Before one can become an expert, writes Gladwell, someone needs to give him or her the opportunity to learn how to be an expert. And if that transition isn’t managed, the young folks, the dealership and the customer will all face painful days.
So the challenge is keeping your top performing veterans as long as you can while also sending off the younger generation (those showing promise, mind you) on their 10,000-hour learning journey. Yes, you’ll spend lots of time and money and will surely lose some sales due to the cost of hard knocks. But avoiding the problem until the day after the retirement party brings much higher, and perhaps insurmountable, costs.
And if you’re one of the “young-ins,” a piece of advice: base each one of your career decisions on the learning investments your company is making in you. As the baby boomers ahead of you head off to warmer climes, there’s an unprecedented, golden age type of opportunity ahead for you.