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'Golden Guru' or boring old nuisance?

By Ken Nielsen - posted Wednesday, 29 April 2009

"I am a Golden Guru and I am here to help you."

I hope I can resist the temptation to join Kevin Rudd’s Corps of Golden Gurus. The scheme was one of the nine suggestions from the 2020 Summit that were recently adopted by the government. Mr Rudd said that the retired have “a mountain of skills, good will and time” to offer. Skilled retirees will be encouraged mentor new small business owners.

I am, I suppose, pretty well qualified to be a guru. Many years’ experience in general management in Australia and Asia on top of legal qualifications should fit the specification. But as a guru or mentor to the manager of a small business I would be a boring old nuisance.


Business experience goes stale very quickly. The business environment has changed a lot even over the past five or ten years. What’s more, running a new small business needs skills quite different to those learned in a large or even medium sized business.

When I left full time employment, I took several positions as a non-executive director of public companies. For a short while, I probably had something useful to say but I soon found myself delivering versions of the same speeches and I watched my colleagues’ eyes glaze over. I tried to tell myself that although things have changed, the basic principles are the same but, of course, a manager faced with a budget over-run or a difficult investment decision or an operational crisis really does not want to be told about basic business principles.

I realised my expiry date had been reached when a company of which I was a director was considering a major project to install a new corporate information system. I had always been interested in information technology and major projects so I though I might be able to help. Not only had the technology changed since I last looked at such a project, but the whole information architecture of the business was new. I had nothing to contribute. Soon after that I decided it was time to move on.

The idea of retired people with years of experience and wisdom helping those struggling to set up new business is appealing. I suppose we have a folk memory of elders of the tribe passing on ancient knowledge to the young. But the technology of hunting and gathering probably did not change rapidly. These days, the elders of the business world will usually be worse than useless to a small business. At best most of the mentors will be irrelevant, at worst they will be a nuisance and a distraction. A person struggling to set up a new business does not have time to listen to another speech starting “When I was general manager of …”

I am not suggesting that the retired should sit on the back veranda with a blanket over their knees doing the crossword. Instead of bothering those with real, current business problems, they should find new worlds of their own to investigate and discover. This does not need a government program or $400,000 of the taxpayers’ money.

In my case, the new world has been music. I have spent much of my time over the past eight years helping establish a new small opera company. I have learned much more than I could teach. It has also been a lot of fun - much more, I am sure, than being the corporate version of a pub bore.

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About the Author

Ken Nielsen has been a lawyer, law teacher and dogfood salesman in his career. He now spends his time listening to music (opera,chamber and bluegrass, mostly), bicycle touring and grandchild wrangling.

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