Workplace trends: The declining role of seniority

January 2011 » Features » BUSINESS STRATEGIES
Value to the firm is increasingly more important than time in the firm.
Kathryn Sprankle

There was a time in the engineering industry when time was one of the top factors in promoting, electing, selecting, and hiring for top leadership roles — as in time in the firm or time in the industry. Looking around, it’s clear that a lot of people in top positions ascended there by putting in the years and rising through the ranks. However, this is changing. It is increasingly common in engineering firms to find leaders in their 30s — even their late 20s — managing people decades older. In the 21st century engineering firm, seniority is not what it used to be.

This trend is partly due to the economic and competitive pressure of the recession; one benefit of a downturn is that firms are forced to hold their people more accountable. So, in firms struggling to ride out a recession, any employee of any age, tenure, or status must consistently prove that his or her value to the firm exceeds the cost. Otherwise, sooner or later, the company must “trade up,” to use a somewhat crude, yet common, term.

This trend does not affect professionals of any generation who remain nimble, agile, and adaptable to market, client, and company needs. There are scads of professionally progressive 60-somethings in the civil engineering industry to prove it. Still, engineering firm professionals of any generation with solid technical expertise but weaker management, leadership, and business talents are increasingly passed over by professionals with similar technical value, but who demonstrate stronger skills in developing staff, managing teams, sustaining client relationships, and adapting to a rapidly changing market environment.

Younger professionals aren’t inherently more skilled in these areas, but they are entering the workforce with “new century” career and workplace expectations — including less company hierarchy, more collaboration, more communication, and evaluation based on outcome rather than process.

“The marketplace is forcing us to understand the difference between expertise and experience,” said 28-year-old Susan Strom, who became the human resources manager for mechanical, electrical, and medical technology engineering firm Mazzetti Nash Lipsey Burch (MNLB) at age 25. “In the past, experience and expertise were coupled. If you had 20 years of experience in building hospitals, it was assumed you had 20 years worth of expertise. But just because you’ve been doing something for 20 years doesn’t mean you’re doing it well and it doesn’t mean you’re learning while you’re doing it.”

Strom is now a senior consultant with Knowledge Architecture (KA), a knowledge management and information technology consultancy based in San Francisco.

“The heightened interest in quality and expertise opens doors for younger people,” Strom said. “They can’t say they’ve been designing hospitals for 20 years if they’ve only been in the industry for five. But after five years, they can say they have expertise in health care design, cite the information they know about it, and describe what they learned from the process.”

Expertise helps level the field between the experienced and inexperienced, but results are the true differentiator.

Generally speaking, one factor that distinguishes Generations X and Y from those that came before is the idea that the outcome matters more than the process that achieves it: results over hours logged.

These youngsters also have the advantage of being raised in the Computer Age and working in an industry where 3D modeling and other technologies are reshaping the way engineers work. Boomers grew up with punch cards and Pong — and only the last of the boomers at that — while Gen Xers and Gen Yers came of age during the rise of personal computers, video games, cell phones, and fax machines.

“Things are changing in the industry,” said Geoff Bomba, 32, an associate with structural engineering firm Forell/Elsesser. “New tools are coming out all the time and people are learning new things in school. If you can’t leverage this new technology, you can’t keep up with the competition. So if you have young people with the right attitude, and you can help cultivate these new ideas and technologies, you can add value for clients.

Younger employees who get ahead know how to tap the experience of their elders tactfully. As human resources director, Strom often relied on the older members of the MNLB management team to fill in the experiential gaps when she encountered a challenge she had previously not met. “I was completely comfortable saying, ‘I haven’t done this before’ and I’d ask them what they thought,” she said.

Bomba takes a similar approach with the senior employees he manages on projects. “When it’s someone with more experience, rather than dictating specific direction on how to do something or giving guidance on a task, I put it back on them and let them decide the best way forward,” he said.

The dynamics of engineering firm leadership may be shifting to favor younger, more technically savvy (and likely less expensive) professionals, but experience will always have its place — especially in those long-term client relationships that are critical for firm continuity. The key for firm leaders is to introduce younger, competent employees earlier on to good clients so that they can perpetuate these relationships with their younger counterparts in client organizations.

The point is not that younger employees are more valuable than older ones — not at all! The point is that the industry urgently needs firm boards of directors to assess themselves and their C-level staff for their relevance to today’s business demands and needs, and then make sure the right people, of any age, are in the right roles.

Kathryn Sprankle is executive director of the AEBL and principal consultant with Sprankle Leadership of San Francisco. She can be contacted at kathryn@sprankleleadership.com or kathrynsprankle@aebl.org.


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