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Oh Captain, My Captain

More and more, captains of industry are looking to postpone or interrupt retirement by contributing their insight and experience to budding companies. So why aren’t more startups clamoring to recruit seasoned veterans?

Peter Koestenbaum is more than a scholarly consultant with a sharp mind, a strong ethical backbone, and a passion for personal volition. He is also a rare and valuable father figure for a new economy workforce that came of age in an era of Reaganomics, conquered the work world in the prosperous 1990s, and never stopped to catch its breath or ask the big questions: Where exactly are we headed? What do I hope to achieve? Does my work make a difference?

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Twenty-five years ago, Koestenbaum began introducing his philosophical values to giant organizations like Ford, Citibank, and Xerox. When he joined forces with the corporate world, Koestenbaum became one of the global economy’s most trusted sages, therapists, and secular priests. He also demonstrated the value of wisdom in this adrenaline-driven marketplace and raised worthwhile questions for all companies struggling through the new world of work: How can business leaders leverage and utilize the wisdom and experience of a growing population of aging workers? And why aren’t more of them doing so?

According to research published by the American Association of Retired People/Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., 80 percent of aging baby boomers express interest in working at least part time during their retirement; five percent of those boomers hope to begin a new career after turning 65. The supply of willing veterans, it appears, is potentially limitless. So the question becomes whether today’s entrepreneurs are shrewd and forward-thinking enough to tap this growing population of gurus.

Lorene Ulrich, senior program specialist for the Working Options segment of the AARP, says intergenerational partnerships — too few and far between — balance an entrepreneur’s drive with a guru’s forbearance and wisdom, and ultimately create an effective venture. “It would be a great idea for a startup to recruit a retired executive to help with problem solving,” Ulrich says. “Though employers are beginning to creatively close the labor supply gap, they have trouble tapping all the skills of older workers.”

Wanted: One Seaworthy Pilot

When Jerry Mueller, 69, joined Northeast Technical Services Company (NETSCo) in 1984, the naval engineering firm desperately needed not an e-commerce strategy nor a marketing budget, but an innovative outlook that could put into perspective the unfavorable demand cycles of the ship building industry. Demand for NETSCo’s $20 to $30 million boats depends largely upon the supply of independent commodities such as grain, cement, and ore. That means that confidence and fortunes at NETSCo can oscillate from one year to the next by no fault of the firm’s.

Last year, NETSCo lost an account with an equipment manufacturer — a loyal customer steered elsewhere away by an acquisition. While NETSCo searched for new business, Mueller kept his co-workers focused by acting as a guiding patriarch, and reassuring the employees that though the circumstances were beyond their control, they could be transcended.

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“We grow 10 to 15 percent a year, but we had a bad year last year because we lost that prime account,” Mueller says. “Though we didn’t lose any employees, morale was down. My job was to keep things in perspective.”

The NETSCo dilemma, similar to those faced by startup ventures every day, was not resolved by choosing right from wrong — it was a challenge that tested the mettle of the company and its leadership. In Mueller’s eyes, a guru’s insight can prove priceless during such times.

“The advantage of having a guru is that you’ve got the experience, but you don’t have to pay a fortune for it,” he says. “Any other way, you’d have to hire a consultant and you wouldn’t be sure if they had the same values as your company. It’s important to glean advice from someone who cares about the business’ welfare.”

Mueller’s acumen is the result of an inspired interest in engineering that led to a long career in the field of shipbuilding, where he learned that a title is only as impressive as the person behind it. Good leaders, he says, know the secret of success is to never use your power to motivate people — but to strive to stimulate them naturally.

As Mueller guides NETSCo’s small staff through the 60-hour weeks and personal sacrifice needed to keep an emerging business running, he acknowledges the importance of keeping a healthy distance. “The guru must avoid running the company,” he says. “I’m trying to stay away from day-to-day operations. If my co-workers acknowledge my effort not to interfere, they will be more likely to take my advice.

“You are not always going to be right. Even when you are, many people will not want to take your advice. You have to respect that. Your colleagues must know that your advice is motivated by the best intentions.”

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Score with Seasoned Veterans

For many startups, the luxuries of an in-house advisor or a high-priced consultant are simply unimaginable. The Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) is a nonprofit association that enables startups to bypass preventative initial expenses and benefit from the advice and counsel of experienced executive volunteers. Nearly 11,500 retirees versed in every corporate discipline volunteer their wisdom through SCORE, providing counseling and low-cost workshops to 350,000 entrepreneurs across the United States.

Two of these altruistic elder executives are Fred Thomas, a 73-year-old retired officer of Citicorp and General Electric, and Bob Fox, a 66-year-old former vice president and counsel to General Foods Corporation. For decades Thomas and Fox tested their mettle in the boardrooms of some of America’s most influential businesses, addressing the ethical demands of leadership on a day-to-day basis. Today, they’ve brought that insight to bear on significantly smaller businesses by applying their practical philosophies to quandaries that are smaller in magnitude, yet no less daunting.

“When people come to us they typically have a strong set of skills, but they seldom know how to totally run a business, ” says Thomas, former president of SCORE and a volunteer for 14 years. “Individuals that evolve into outstanding successes often exert a high level of energy and demand more from themselves.”

Recently Thomas and Fox teamed up to advise a homemaker who cooked up a recipe for better no-fat brownies, but needed marketing guidance and encouragement to feed her dream. The SCORE volunteers’ gentle reassurance gave Lindsay H. Frucci the confidence and skills to make her lifelong dream an economic reality.

“There was a tough situation with suppliers and late shipments that almost drove her out of business,” Fox said. “Crises are native to any of these ventures and we’re often the only staff many of them have. If something comes up, she knows she can call us.”

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No Pudge! Foods, Inc. survived initial trauma and went on to thrive under the tutelage of its SCORE advisors, who stressed the virtues of embracing change. The startup’s revenues grew from $6,000 to $250,000 in two years and now No Pudge! is aiming for national gourmet and grocery store distribution that could push sales to $1 million. Even after watching No Pudge! push its profits sky-high, Fox insists that success results not from a sage’s advice, but from an ironclad commitment to a solid business plan.

“Lindsay was enamored with product demonstrations, but we advised her that she needed to be in the office and she made that commitment,” Fox says. “As it turned out, she was a born entrepreneur. We challenged her and give her tasks that created an atmosphere of accountability to which she responded.”

Neglected Resources

Despite the obvious benefits of working with or bringing on board a seasoned veteran, few emerging companies are pursuing relationships with gurus like Mueller, Thomas, and Fox. In focus groups, Lorene Ulrich says she found that entrepreneurs will acknowledge the value of a guru’s perspective, but they will rarely actively recruit retired professionals to join or advise their teams.

“Half of the individuals writing to the AARP are starting their own businesses — and in nearly every case, older people would make good partners,” Ulrich says. “The problem is that small businesses aren’t knocking at our doors looking for people to guide them.”

Universities across the nation, it seems, are taking the lead in this initiative. Several institutes of higher learning have implemented phased retirement programs that shift an employee’s responsibilities from tactical to conceptual toward the end of his or her career. The corporate work world, however, has been slow or reluctant to follow suit with flexible job descriptions for older employees. Ulrich says companies must learn to take advantage of an experienced worker’s philosophical and professional insight in order to build a sustainable endeavor that will survive the shifting tides of the new economy. The rewards, she says, will pay off tenfold.

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“If you can motivate a person to be successful by acknowledging his or her unique contributions and perspective,” Mueller says, “then they will, in turn, make your business successful.”

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