Is a good attitude all it takes?

January 9, 2007
By: Bob Nichols

This article from reader-favorite author Bob Nichols is a point-of-view piece that questions the popular adage that attitude is all it takes to excel in the business world. Nichols' article, written from a mature manager's perspective, is a good supplement to Understanding and motivating the multigenerational work forcepublished previously on

After 30 years of hard work in the metalworking industry, I now have been told that all you really need to succeed is a good attitude. This comes as a real shock to those of us who were misled years ago into thinking that education, experience, discipline, integrity, and a strong work ethic were the ingredients of success. But, nope, you just need a good attitude. Of course, I speak with tongue in cheek.

A good attitude undeniably is important. But unaccompanied by experience, discipline, education, good judgment, a strong work ethic, and integrity, a good attitude is just a thin veneer over rotten wood. We have seen young CEOs eviscerate a company by firing or retiring all older employees. They hire or promote younger people into the top jobs at lower salaries and claim the cost savings as evidence of their good management.

The Almighty M.B.A.

A company recently employed a very well-educated engineer with an M.B.A. in a senior management position. Despite his education, he knew nothing about the business and ultimately was relieved of his job. He was a decent young man who tried too hard to manage by the books with nothing to temper his judgment. He trusted only the other young staff members. He had well-seasoned senior managers in key positions, but failed to capitalize on their wealth of experience.

I don't mean to sound like a barrel of sour grapes. I recognize we need the vigor and enthusiasm of youth to propel our companies to higher performance levels. What we cannot afford are young executives who want to save money by thinning the ranks of the men and women who were building the company when those young executives were still in diapers.

Another company with a new CEO eliminated most older employees and repopulated management and engineering with younger people. The company then discovered that when the older employees left, so did most of the practical experience. In fact, some employees who were "urged" to leave were rehired as consultants to compensate for the fact that the company no longer had the practical process experience for which it was known.

This is not to say that all young executives are poorly equipped and are bad managers. I have worked for several younger people who are exceptional managers and worthy of respect and loyalty. They earned respect and loyalty because the culture they created was inclusive.

The Importance of Teamwork

The point is we need to work as a team. Today's young executives must partner with the seniors who have worked most of their lives in middle management. Failing to make equal partners of people who know the business down to the basics is a common and sometimes fatal mistake. It also is one that is easily avoided.

Clearly, it is nature's intent that elders will be replaced by the younger generation. While many ancient societies honor and respect their elders, sadly, we Americans seem to have abandoned that concept and continue to chase eternal youth. Perhaps we forget that we all will grow old one day. In what kind of a culture do you wish to grow old?

For most of my career, professionals were expected to work their way up the corporate ladder, starting with a college degree and a junior position. One gained experience and responsibility over a course of 20 to 30 years before making it to the executive ranks. Today many mature workers are seeing people 25 years younger being promoted over them, leaving them languishing in the middle-management ranks. Many of these mature workers now cling to their middle positions, hoping their jobs are not eliminated or filled by another younger person.

An M.B.A. degree's popularity seems to be disproportionate to what an employer gets for the money. The concept that having an M.B.A. automatically qualifies someone to manage any type of company fails to recognize fundamental differences in the industries served: the laws that govern the industry, the nature of competition, sources of raw materials, work force cultures, and so on. No business school can prepare a student to cope with all the variables and extremes. It takes time to acclimate and comprehend these issues.

Ask yourself if you would like a person with a degree in geology and an M.B.A. running a hospital in which you are going to receive a heart transplant. Personally, I would really like to see a medical professional with 25 years of medical practice controlling the hospital's policies and procedures.

What Mature Workers Face

Older managers frequently are overlooked sources of insight and creative ideas. They have the broader view of issues that comes with experience and often can suggest ideas that draw from various sources. Mature managers can be accused of being negative, but they typically have seen more failed ideas than younger managers. Some ideas just keep coming back, even though they were discredited years ago.

Older managers frequently are overlooked for promotions. Laws against age discrimination exist, but the practice is still pervasive, though subtle. Older managers increasingly are the minority in today's organizations. They make too much money, are seen as health care risks, and sit on the downsizing bull's-eye.

The U.S. worries about losing manufacturing jobs, and this is a valid concern. What about the loss of manufacturing experience? It is not the machinery that makes the products; it is the people who run the machines and the people who manage those who run them. When you outsource overseas, you still can get experienced workers and managers. When you outsource to younger managers, you may lose the good judgment and expertise necessary to ensure a profitable, quality product.

For those of us who have spent our time in the trenches, we, too, need to maintain a good attitude. Some of us may have been treated poorly, made poor decisions, or had plain bad luck, but we must not let these events color our attitudes black. If we hope to have the positive influence we are capable of having, we must demonstrate flexibility, hope, and confidence in the future of our companies and in America.

Beyond the M.B.A.

I am confident that multitudes of young people with M.B.A.s reading this article already are preparing a rebuttal to my comments. Please, don't be offended. I am in no way denigrating higher education or the native abilities of any group. If I were 25 years younger, I would be working on an M.B.A., too! But an M.B.A. degree is the beginning, not the end of your education. Your chosen industry will provide with you the rest, all in good time.

Let us all commit to merging experience with youthful energy to create a culture where everyone is respected and included in our future.

Bob Nichols

Contributing Writer