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Captain Sully at SAPPHIRE NOW: the Power of Experience and Preparation

June 5, 2014 by Cory Coley-Christakos 0

The opening day of SAPPHIRE NOW in 2014 was remarkable for many reasons, not the least of which was the starkly contrasting keynote lineup that bookended the program.

The conference opened with three extraordinary young people: Tim DonerKelvin Doe and Ayna Agarwal. They were energetic, poised and articulate, and they are creating the future in inspiring ways.

In contrast, Captain “Sully” Sullenberger gave the closing keynote, holding the large audience in rapt attention describing the epic emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January of 2009, and infusing leadership lessons that resonated with this business audience.

In a time when Millennials flood the news and consume a vast amount of organizational attention, this 63 year-old airline pilot eloquently reminded us of the value of preparation and of experience. From the moment the plane was disabled to the time it landed safely, only 208 seconds had elapsed.

“The fact that we got so much, so right, so quickly, under those conditions of crisis is a testament to our training, our preparation and years of experience, and the judgment that we’d developed”.  Captain Sully pointed out that they had never practiced a water landing specifically – that in fact, the simulators wouldn’t allow it – but the value of the cumulative experience gained over many years enabled he and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles to calmly work together to execute the landing.


Malcolm Gladwell commented on this when he followed Captain Sully on the keynote stage at Learning2009. “What the expert can do is, in that totally unscripted moment, he or she can make sense of 25 different variables (almost instantly)… When you get to that level of expertise, you can suddenly do those unbelievably complex calculations in a matter of seconds.  And that’s why we have experts – for that moment when there’s no other system that can help us.”  He had just written Outliers at the time, in which he highlighted the fact that it takes 10,000 hours to become such an expert.

Are You Cultivating Your Experts?

The experts in your organization may be less visible than the ambitious, fearless young talent pounding on your door for new opportunities and challenges.  They are more likely to be the older employees who have spent a career and a lifetime preparing, gathering experience, and honing their judgment. Research confirms that mature workers have stronger logical reasoning ability due to neurological changes that come with age.

Unfortunately, Gallup found that Baby Boomers have the lowest level of employee engagement and the highest level of active disengagement in American organizations, and pointed out that this disengagement has important negative implications for businesses, as well as the overall economy.  In some organizations, older workers are marginalized, if not ignored.

As Gallup points out, people of ALL generations want to have an opportunity to do their best work every day, and feel that there is a higher mission and purpose. Why not tap into these collective needs, combine the experts with the emerging talent, and do a better job of solving today’s business challenges while creating our next generation of leaders?  Why not put “generational intelligence” on your management agenda?

A replay of the entire presentation can be found here (approx. 34:00 minutes in, following the ASUG panel discussion).

This story originally appeared on SAP Business Trends.

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