The Power of Age

Eight distinguished emeritus alumni reflect on shattering Golden Years stereotypes, acting on inspiration, and blazing trails.

As told to Jim Collins

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(Illustrations by Riccardo Vecchio)

 

Increasingly, and strikingly, our nation’s over-70 professionals belie the notion of retirement. In this digital, 24/7, high-tech, constant-innovation era, they’re the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. No group represents the trend better than Wharton’s “emeritus” alumni, who include any graduate who’s celebrated a 45th reunion. Here is a gallery of grads whose spiritual and intellectual powers haven’t diminished with age—who believe, in fact, that they’re doing the best work of their lives. In their voices we hear inspiration and something akin to wisdom.


farouq-sultan-wg73Farouq Sultan WG73
CEO, Kuwait LBO Management Ltd.

I was born in Kuwait City, but my parents moved to India when I was very young, and we lived there for 14 years. I went to New York University to study engineering. Most of my career has been in Kuwait, much of it working with international partners and clients. In all the work I do, I find my colleagues get upset when things aren’t done the way they expect them to be done. I tell them to relax. Nobody’s wrong—it’s just culture. It’s different points of view.

I’m fascinated by financial crises. I always wonder how I would have lived through the crash of 1929. I went through 2008 saying, Wow. What a time to be alive! To be able to see this and figure out how to get through it … Life doesn’t move in a straight line. I tell people to just do it. Make mistakes. Do it again. You’ll do it better. Don’t give up. So much happens out of our control. What we can control is our effort—and our perspective. I keep a sense of humor and make fun of myself all the time. I’m one of seven billion people on the planet. I just try to do my best and keep learning.

I speak seven languages. For the past four years, I’ve been taking a lot of online courses on Coursera and edX, in subjects from the making of the atom bomb to the theory of relativity, viruses, game theory, astrobiology, operation management, paleontology, negotiation, English composition, genetics, the origins of the universe … I try to read five to eight books a month on Kindle. The internet has been a blessing. I wish I was 25 again, knowing what I’ve learned. I have 400 followers on Instagram. Having so many followers feels something like being in a cult.

I’m working six to seven hours a day and would like to continue working as long as my mind is functioning. I still enjoy the challenge of it. But I know that the older we get, the more we lose the cognitive ability to make sound decisions. So one major thing: You must hire people who are smarter than you. Hire really good people to make decisions. At the meetings, let them talk and then say, “Does everyone agree with that? Okay …”

If the decision turns out to be wrong, the smart people can fix it.

With background experience in telecom­muni­cations, light industry, import and export trading and emerging technologies, among other sectors, Farouq Sultan now manages a private equity fund with a focus on Kuwait.


jim-rowbotham-wg69Jim Rowbotham WG69
Business development and marketing research consultant, Fifteen Degrees

I hate the term emeritus. Even the way it sounds. I’d say I’m one of the “certain agers.” Perhaps that term actually might catch on. I bought the domain name certainagers.com just in case.

I have some lineal examples of continuing to work at a certain age. My dad retired near 80. My maternal grandfather was still selling houses in Middletown, New York, at the age of 90. My first boss in advertising “retired” but is writing a book and staying super-involved at age 78. Of course, there are situations that motivate working. My wife Cindy and I got kicked around by the stock market during the 2008 financial crisis. But there’s no quit in me, or in her. We’ve climbed back by working hard. Fortunately, each of us enjoys the process and challenges of professional effort.

Keeping up with the times is somewhat intuitive for me. I recall a movie my grandmother took me to—She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, starring John Wayne. There was a line in that movie that I’ve never forgotten: “The old days are gone forever.” I recently told a 70-year-old buddy of mine who’s working on a startup, “When you go into a meeting, always have a new idea or new approach to offer. Never say, ‘Back when I was your age …’” That’s brutal.

I love the way the digital and information age has unfolded. It makes research so much easier than it ever was. I can work faster and better. I can cast new findings and current research against my knowledge. I have a frame of reference. Young people are still building their own frames.

I work for an ad agency called Fifteen Degrees—that’s the angle an airplane’s wings need to reach in order to create lift. It’s a versatile, cross-generational advertising and marketing agency based in Manhattan. On the firm’s website, I say that my role is discovering new business opportunities. Off-site workspaces, watering holes, college alumni events, marketing seminars—these are my playgrounds and offices.

What would I say to a graduating class from Wharton today? Keep a sense of humor. Keep figuring things out. And be nice. When I was younger, I had a bit of an edge, but I eventually figured it out. Stay hungry. Stay creative. Aim high. Be respectfully persistent.

I have two holy grails right now. The first is a tagline I originated that would be ideal for Google, as it summarizes its business beyond search. I’d like to get in the door there to pitch it. And I have a sales promotion campaign concept that Coca-Cola could build out. It’s catchy; it’s flexible. The possibility for customizing digital signage to its theme would be exciting. I just need to find the right person at Coke to talk to in confidence for testing consideration. Keep hope alive… even at the “certain age” stage.

In a career spanning more than 45 years, Jim Rowbotham has helped create business and marketing campaigns around some of industry’s iconic brands, including Ralston Purina, the Bic pen company, Seagram Distillers, Colgate-Palmolive and American Home Products.


myron-weiner-wg51Myron Weiner WG51
Emeritus professor, University of Connecticut; partner, Weiner Associates

Technically I retired in 1992 from the University of Connecticut, where I taught courses in organizational and human management. But retirement didn’t mean slowing down. I consulted for about 15 years and continued teaching part-time. I’ve become very active in my synagogue’s choral singing group. I work with my wife for a nonprofit called My Sister’s Place, which provides temporary housing for women and families in transition. I’ve been the chairman of the board of Federation Homes, an independent-living community here in Bloomfield, Connecticut, that’s a much better alternative to traditional nursing homes.

A lot of my generation didn’t have computing in our lives. Most of us are technology immigrants, not natives, not like the people who grew up after the 1970s and ’80s. But in the Navy, I was a radar technician, and I discovered there wasn’t much difference between radar and computers. I wasn’t afraid of them. It was an accident that I was at Wharton just when Penn’s engineering department was unveiling the ENIAC. I was fascinated by it.

I was an early adopter. As a UConn professor, I was among the first to work with local and state governments and nonprofits to use computers to manage their organizations, communications, inventories, supply chains and delivery systems. I brought computers into the classroom when no one was doing that.

After retiring, I helped with the Wharton Graduate Emeritus Society website and got involved with blogging about technology issues. As a society, we need to think hard about how we design and use technology to reinforce our values.

Thanks to modern medicine, we now have a “third age”—20 or 30 years after what was once considered a full working career—that we can use to continue being productive, to figure out how to contribute our skills and life experiences. As long as you stay healthy and involved, there’s no end to what you can offer.

Myron Weiner’s book Human Services Management became one of the leading texts in the field. Together with his wife Ruth, he is a partner in Weiner Associates LLC, management consultants with both national and international clients.


alain-levy-wg72Alain Levy WG72
Executive chairman, Algean Group; former music-industry executive

Being old has nothing to do with age. I never really felt a conflict between generations. There’s no tension at all. You simply have to accept that things change. For instance, at the start of the music recording industry, you’d go to pubs to listen to artists, looking for talent. Now you’d use digital search instruments. The approach has changed. But the value, and the values—they’re the same.

I don’t believe in career paths. Things happen because of what you do. Once you’ve done things, you can continue doing more of them by delegating and by not trying to do the things you can’t do. For example, I was never a big fan of rap. But I oversaw a very large rap department. I didn’t know a thing about it. I needed someone there I could trust, someone from a younger generation. Now, when I signed Norah Jones. Anyone could tell she’d have an audience.

Change brings disruption. I spent the last five years of my music career not fighting the change facing the industry, but trying to adapt to it. Ultimately, as a whole, we weren’t successful. I basically saw an industry being destroyed. I’m now consulting with a small firm that’s growing international businesses in various sectors. We make strategic investments in innovative concepts having to do with digital content and services.

What drives me is intellectual stimulation, whether that’s reading a great biography or strategically advising companies. Golf, to me, is a useless pastime. I suppose it’s useful from a social point of view. Right now I’m learning to speak Spanish. I suppose that’s useless as well, for what it will bring me. But it’s intellectually stimulating.

Alain Levy had a successful career as chairman and CEO of Polygram Worldwide and EMI Music. His companies were responsible for the breakout success of such music artists as Elton John, U2, Bon Jovi, the Rolling Stones and Coldplay, among others, and for international film hits including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Trainspotting, Fargo, Dead Man Walking and The Big Lebowski. Levy led major deals in the media and entertainment industry, including Polygram’s acquisitions of Motown and Def Jam.


sister-dorothy-mccormick-wg66Sister Dorothy McCormick WG66
Professor, Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi; Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur

When I was at Wharton, there were 300 men and only seven women in our MBA class. Being a woman on campus—that alone made me a curiosity, not to mention walking around in a black habit. Our mother superior had asked me to get the degree in order to serve as treasurer and help to professionalize the community’s finances. When the class rolls were called, the professors would say, “Mr. McCormick?” And I’d just say, “Here!”

I later became very interested in international studies, especially Africa as a region. I went on a two-month independent study in Nairobi in 1983. I wrote my first papers there about the economics of women’s groups and small co-ops. I developed a real interest in microenterprise, and I’ve never stopped being interested. After completing my PhD, I joined the University of Nairobi as a research fellow in 1988.

It’s hard to work in this research institute and feel stuck. The institute is small and needs to be nimble and opportunistic. We’re constantly getting drawn into new things. And Kenya is a very young country—the average age of the population is under 18. The Institute for Development Studies began life as a research institute in 1965, but we are relatively new at teaching.

We started the master’s program here in 2000 and the PhD program in 2003. I supervise post-grads—at the moment, three master’s and three PhD students, some of them studying entrepreneurship. Lately I’ve been getting pulled into innovation studies. I’m currently looking at the business strategies of the public transport system here, which is mostly small- and medium-sized buses called “matatus” run by private companies. Colleagues and I are involved with planning the second annual Eastern Africa Transport Conference.

I really love my work. It helps my community financially. More importantly, I think it gives me a chance to make a difference. Because non-Kenyans can’t be permanent workers, I’ve been working under two-year contracts. No one is pushing me to retire yet.

Co-author of six books and author of dozens of papers, Sister Dorothy McCormick has academic interests that include theory and practice of entrepre­neur­ship and micro- and small-enterprise development. From 2001 to 2007 she was director of the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Studies. 


john-teeling-wg69John Teeling WG69
Chairman and founder, Great Northern Distillery; Clontarf Energy; Connemara Mining; Botswana Diamonds; Petrel Resources

I’m actively involved in five different businesses—a whiskey distillery and some energy and mining exploration companies. But you’ll notice I’m the chairman, not the CEO or managing director. I’m working full-time and traveling a lot for business, but my schedule isn’t as full as it once was. There’s a real upside to that. I can lift my nose up from the grindstone to see the big picture. I think I can see opportunity better.

Working at my age, especially in speculative, volatile markets, gives me a couple of advantages. First, even though I’m a member of the “99 Percent Club”—people who own shares that have lost 99 percent of their value—I have a bigger equity base, which allows more flexibility. Second, I think age makes one more comfortable with risk. That’s especially important working in some of the unstable parts of the world where we do. The people I associate with in mining and energy exploration tend to be older. I see executives who are married to what made them successful, who are comfortable with risk in their businesses but who seem resistant to adopting new strategies or technologies. I’m open to anything, because I’m most interested in solving problems. I’m interested in the answer. If technology gives me the answer, then I’ll trust it.

People ask me why I don’t retire. Why would I do that? People my age are paying good money to travel to places I get to visit regularly for my work. And I’m looking for gold, for oil and diamonds. But you know, it’s not about the kill. It’s about the hunt, the next success. One of the most exciting things in the world to me is getting a call from a driller or a chief geologist and hearing the words, “I think we’ve found something.”

In addition to holding part-time academic positions, John Teeling has had a long career as a director and an investor in energy and mining businesses, including gold, diamonds, zinc and titanium. In 1987 he founded Cooley Distillery, the first independent whiskey distillery established in Ireland in 100 years. He sold the company in 2012 to Beam/Suntory for $95 million. In 2014 he established the Great Northern Distillery, which is now the second largest Irish whiskey distillery complex. In 2016 he was elected to the Whiskey Hall of Fame.


lucinda-kasperson-wg53Lucinda Kasperson WG53
Computer consultant; entrepreneur

My life is quite unusual. I worked in the research department of the Federal Reserve Bank. I graded papers for Northwestern and taught economics for eight years at Loyola. I started and ran a computer consulting company that specialized in graphics and digital printing. I served as a delegate at the ’72 Republican convention, and on our city council here in Northbrook, Illinois, for 18 years. I bought a bank in Bosnia—a hundred-year-old bank that was the first one ever to be privatized there. I went over in 2001 and ran it for a year, with an interpreter.

I ended up adopting two of the interpreter’s children, as well as raising two handicapped children of my own. I helped set up a residence for young women in northern Thailand so they could attend high school. I still have a small interest in the Bosnia bank.

Right now, I’m busy setting up the local Republican office in advance of the November elections and helping to raise money for local charities. The flexibility to accept new challenges came from my Wharton training. The principles I learned about finance have worked for my entire life. The work habits and problem-solving techniques are lifelong; what changes are the contexts and the technology. In my computer business, it feels like I have to relearn everything every six months. Innovation is the key. For all of us.

Lucinda Kasperson has a varied career involving finance, economics, politics and technology consulting. She operated MBA Computer Consulting for 25 years.


tom-hadlock-wg66Tom Hadlock WG66
Senior executive, SMA NYC Advertising

It is important to keep up in a fast-changing environment. One key is to spend time thinking about the current state of affairs—and then the future; in each case, leaning from the past. Right now our focus at the ad agency where I work is almost all digital—banner ads, keywords, search and the analytics that go with that.

In order to be an effective leader, one needs to know how to strategize and implement. I stay up-to-date. I go to conferences. The learning curves have become steeper, but human relationships with your clients are still essential. Put yourself in their shoes. Convert what you wish to convey into language, concepts and terms that they can understand. Building the chemistry of which relationships are made does take time. Working with millennials can be critical, and challenging, too. They can sometimes be disrespectful of what they perceive as a slow culture. Their goals are different.

Personally, I’m a long-hours guy. I like to use the day fully. I’m always moving forward. There are trade-offs when you do that. It’s important to spend time on reflection and thought—that’s a part of the work/life process. But I don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on things. I don’t read as many books as I should. I’m not sure my wife would say the trade-off is such a good thing. But bringing something to bear on the process, getting things done, giving back to other people and to organizations—to me, that’s all incredibly rewarding. I could have retired several years ago, but being in leadership positions at work and outside of work has never been more exciting. I don’t want to stop.

Tom Hadlock has worked on the account management side in major ad agencies including BBDO, Grey and DDB. His clients have included GE, Pfizer, the U.S. government, Canon and Sharp Electronics. He’s currently senior director at Seiter & Miller Advertising in New York City. 


A Call to Action

In 2003, recognizing the depth of knowledge and experience accumulated by alumni over the age of 65—and the fact that many of them remain actively engaged in their careers and their communities—Wharton established the Wharton Graduate Emeritus Society. Designed to increase engagement and strengthen the bonds between the business school and a vital segment of its alumni body, the society offers opportunities for continuing education, regional networking events and mentoring—particularly for career-changers and young entrepreneurs looking to launch new businesses. Some 6,500 graduates have become members of the society.

Former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall WG60 has challenged this older generation to continue putting its energies toward supporting community causes—to join, in his words, “the Geezer Crusade.” The emeritus society has picked up the charge with the “Crandall Challenge,” a recognition of society members who contribute to their professions while technically retired. The first Crandall Challenge winners will be announced this spring.—Jim Collins

 

To hear Jim Rowbotham and Tom Hadlock share their insights on the power of age, check out their appearance on Knowledge@Wharton, originally aired on Sirius XM Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School.

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