The Arrogance of Experience | Business LockerRoom

The Business LockerRoom

By Kelly Riggs | Sales + Leadership

Jan 24

The Arrogance of Experience

by Kelly Riggs

All things being equal, when faced with a “very important” task, most companies will choose a person with successful experience to take it on. Whatever that task looks like – a big project, an important new customer, a critical product launch – most leaders will choose experience to get the job done.

Which makes sense. After all, how many of us are willing to take a chance on an inexperienced, unproven player with everything on the line? My sense is that very few are willing to take that risk, and for good reason. That decision is too easy to criticize, and, as a bonus, it has huge potential to go badly. Most of us would undoubtedly pick someone who has been there, done that – and done it successfully.

No question about it, experience counts.

Until it gets arrogant.

The truth is that there actually is a point where experience is as much a liability as it is an asset. Here’s what that arrogance sounds like:

“That’s the way we’ve always done it…”
“We tried that once; it doesn’t work…”
“This is how it’s done around here…”
“We’ve been doing this a while…”

Sound familiar?

Probably so. Leaders tend to get very comfortable with even a moderate level of success, which leads inevitably to the arrogance of experience. But, think about it – to be satisfied with the status quo, one is forced to assume that things will not change; that the variables that impact success – including the competition – will remain the same over time.

Sounds a bit silly when you say it like that, doesn’t it?

Why? Because if anything is constant in business today, it’s change. Competitors change. Markets change. Regulations change. Technology changes.

And employees change.

THE Big Change

In the past 20 years, in every major sport, there have been substantive changes in the game.

Just think about the NFL. You’ve seen substantial rule changes, new offensive and defensive schemes, changes in positions, and much, much more. Every year, every team turns over every rock looking for an edge, something they can do differently to win the championship, and every time someone finds success, everyone is forced to respond (except, it appears, the Cleveland Browns, who just keep losing).

Change is simply a given. You can adapt or you become irrelevant. A coach will never survive playing the game the same way it’s always been played, because the game is changing! In some ways, that doesn’t even qualify as the arrogance of experience – it’s just plain stupid.

And, of course, players have changed. Yes, even sports has not escaped the dramatic change in employees. More has been written about Millennials than you could read in a lifetime, but here is all you need to know – they are far different than you Boomers.

Click the graphic to watch/listen
to this episode of the Countermentors podcast.

Yes, Millennials, who were raised on social media by “helicopter” parents, have now become the largest demographic in the workplace. And they are different than you, Boomer manager. They have different attitudes, different expectations, different work habits, and completely different ideas.

Good example: This past week, completely unknown to head coach Mike Tomlin, a star player on the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to stream, on Facebook Live, his coach’s locker room talk. As he fired up his players, Coach Tomlin had a couple of choice words for his next opponent, the New England Patriots – the kind of stuff we would rather keep just between us team mates, if you know what I mean.

Turns out, not only was Coach Tomlin not thrilled (to say the least), the NFL has a rule against that kind of thing, which cost the player $10,000.


So, if you’re older, you just shake your head (“kids these days”). But, understand that Millennials have no idea what the fuss is all about. They have no clue. Why? Because they have been raised in a society whose norms are completely different than what you and I grew up with.

They were born with a mobile phone in their hands. It is the first thing they check in the morning when they wake up; it is the last thing they look at before they go to sleep. To them, Google is the ultimate authority. The neighborhood they live in is called Snapchat. Their currency is Apple Pay and PayPal.

Yes, Boomer Manager, Millennials are different. Get over it. It DOES NOT mean they can’t crush it; it simply means their perspectives are different than yours. Have you completely forgot how different you were when you stumbled into the workplace thirty years ago (or more).


So, here’s the thing. ANY new employee, regardless of how or when he/she was raised, will need to be trained. Obviously, they will benefit greatly from the knowledge and experience of older employees. YES, they need to learn and adapt as much as you do; however, (NEWS FLASH!) those younger employees also bring a set of skills and ideas to the workplace that, while completely foreign to many older managers, are quite VALUABLE.

What is completely predictable is how many older, experienced leaders automatically label what makes them “different” as bad or wrong. Why? Because, “this is the way we’ve always done it.” And besides, these young kids need to “pay their dues like I did.”

It’s called the arrogance of experience. MY way must be the BEST (or ONLY) way. Because that’s the way I did it. And this is the BIG change confronting today’s manager – overcoming the arrogance of experience with regards to Millennials. Many Boomer managers are simply unwilling to adapt to the monumental changes that technology and Millennials represent in the workplace.

For example:

  • Some managers dismiss valuable social selling tools because THEY didn’t need those things when they were in the field
  • Some managers refuse to consider different workplace practices because they’ve always worked 8:00 to 5:00 (or some other sacred cow)
  • Some managers constantly complain about younger employees, but make absolutely no effort to understand things from their perspectives since “those little snowflakes wouldn’t know a good day’s work if it hit them in the head” (or some other choice words)
  • Some managers continue to talk about the way things used to be when they were young (“Uphill, both ways, in the snow” and all that nonsense)

You get the idea. Some leaders are either arrogant or stubborn. Maybe both.

They refuse to adapt.

Listen, experience is important, even critical. But the minute leaders refuse to adapt to change, the vultures will begin to circle. And, by the way, the answer to the BIG CHANGE is not to learn how to “manage Millennials.” The real answer is to determine how you can adapt and leverage the new type of player you now have available to your team. That’s what successful sports coaches have been forced to do.

No, it doesn’t mean that you should hand out trophies for showing up, or that you should allow little Cupcake to Facetime during your next sales meeting. It does mean, however, that you should wake up and get your head out.

Do you want to do it the way you’ve always done it, or do you want to continue to thrive and be successful?

Your competition is anxious to hear what you decide.


About the Author

Kelly Riggs is a business performance coach and founder of the Business LockerRoom. A former national Salesperson of the Year and serial entrepreneur, Kelly is a recognized thought leader in the areas of sales, management leadership, and strategic planning. He serves clients ranging from small, privately held companies to Fortune 500 firms. Kelly has written two books: “1-on-1 Management™: What Every Great Manager Knows That You Don’t” and “Quit Whining and Start SELLING! A Step-by-Step Guide to a Hall of Fame Career in Sales.”