Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Leaders: Don't Get "Old"

"People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old
This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
Why don't you all fade away
And don't try to dig what we all say
I'm not trying to cause a big sensation
I'm just talkin' 'bout my generation " - The Who

Like a lot of boomers, I remember rockin to "My Generation" and asking my friends to shoot me before I got "old". And I didn't really mean old, as in "old age". There were a lot of cool old dudes we could point to. I was referring to that old coot for a boss I had at the supermarket, who was stuck in his ways, critical, miserable and lazy. I guess it was afraid of becoming "old fashioned", or "old school" more than getting just plain old.

So now, 30 years later, "my generation" is on the verge of old. OK, some might say we're already there. And quite honestly, I kind of like this stage in my life. There's a lot to be said for maturity, financial security, career success and credibility, and looking forward to the freedom of a soon to be empty nest.

Yet when it comes to the workplace, we need to make sure, especially as leaders, that we're not letting ourselves get "old" in how we show up at work.

Part of the inspiration for this post, and my own personal declaration, was reading Lisa Haneberg's new book, Hip and Sage. I've known Lisa through her Management Craft blog as a regular contributor to the Leadership Carnival, and she sent me a copy a few weeks ago. I picked it up one early Sunday morning and never put it down until I finished it.

Lisa says if there's only one thing you take away from the book, it should be the story of how Tony Bennet introduced himself to K.D. Lang backstage at an awards ceremony. He walked up to her, a new singer young enough to be his granddaughter, and said, "Hello, I am Tony Bennett, I am a big fan of your work, and I would love to work with you sometime."

First of all, everyone knew who Tony Bennet was - no introduction was needed. Instead of offering to give "the kid" a hand and help her out, he humbly asked if he could work with her so that he could learn and stay fresh. That's why, although in his 80's, Tony is still "young" - he's hip & sage.

When a leader allows him/herself to get "old", there are personal and organizational consequences. Michael Haberman just wrote a nice piece on Ageism in the workforce. Yes, from an HR standpoint, it's illegal as hell. But it's still all around us, and can have serious career implications.

The organizational consequences are a lack of innovation, stalled change efforts, frustrated employees, and clogged talent pipelines.

While we can't stop the clock, there are some things we can do to make sure we're not thinking, acting, and looking "old":

1. Don't think old.

One of the disadvantages to experience is that it can lead to being too skeptical. It's that "been there, done that" attitude. The problem is, it comes across as being close-minded and not open to change. Phrases like "we tried that and it didn't work", or "that's just a newer version of an old idea" may be true, but they can take the wind out of the sails of creativity and engagement and inhibit our learning.

Instead, try practicing "possibility thinking". Hold back the urge to evaluate and dismiss new ideas too quickly, listen, and ask yourself and others "what if". The next time someone trys to tell you something was already tried and won't work, use the phrase "up until now", i.e., "well, up until now, that may have been true; but what if we.....".

When an employee comes to you with a proposal that they are excited about, don't look for all the flaws in the idea or come up with ways to make it harder to implement the idea. You should tell yourself your job as a leader is to figure out ways to make it easier to implement that idea. Try it - it's a lot harder than it sounds - and you will be amazed with the effect it has on your employees and your organization.

We all like to think we're open to change - but are you? Are you keeping up with your field, with technology, with trends, and the world around you? After years of stubborn resistance (and frugality), I finally gave in and purchased an iPhone. I'm now an app addict. I've not yet fully embraced Twitter.... but a generous fellow blogger is teaching me.

Is there anything from this decade on your iPod? Is your favorite cable channel TV Land?

I admit, there are times I feel the world is spinning too fast and out of control. I sometimes miss simplicity. The key is not to put your head in the sand and turn your back on change, but to stay informed, keep an open mind, and try something new now and then.

Don't be that old coot supermarket manager; be Tony Bennet.

2. Don't act old.

I'll never forget the time I was leading a team to develop a new company performance management system and were we presenting to our executive management team. My team and I were only 10 minutes into the presentation that we had worked so hard on, and as I looked around the room to read their reactions, I noticed four of them were falling asleep. One was about to fall off his chair. Yes, it was after lunch and performance appraisals might not be the most exciting of topics, but I told myself that day I would NEVER be one of those guys if I ever made it to that level. Is it asking too much to at least be awake as a senior leader? Better yet, leaders, at any age need to bring a sense of enthusiasm, optimism, encouragement, passion and energy to work every day.

To maintain this kind of day-to-day level of energy requires that we stay healthy and in shape. That, and consume massive amounts of coffee.

It's about not letting yourself go, as tempting as that can be some days.

One of my role models for how to age was a man who lived next door to us when we bought our first house. Bob kept himself in great shape, was always working in the yard, active in the community, and never complained about his health. He was always there with words of wisdom and encouragement, and always greeted you with a warm smile and firm handshake. Bob was a pleasure to be around.

3. Don't look old.

All right, this is the most superficial of the three, but like it or not, appearances do matter. The #1 fashion/beauty book title of the year was "How Not To Look Old". One of the hottest fields in consulting these days is Image Consulting.

This is one that can sneak up on you. A few months ago, one of our Gen Y employees saw a pocket comb sticking out of my back pocket, and remarked "oh, that's so cute, my grandfather used to have one of those". Really?

This is where having two teenage daughters has helped. They never fail to provide me with blunt feedback on my appearance. I'm especially grateful for Mrs. Great Leadership, as without her, I'd surely drive right off a fashion cliff.

In case you're not sure, here are 10 signs that you might be showing your old age:

1. You complain that the cleaners has started shrinking your clothes

2. The end of your tie doesn't come anywhere near the top of your pants

3. You text with your index finger

4. You wear black socks with sandals

5. Flecks of gray starting to appear in your hairpiece

6. You buy a compass for the dash of your car

7. You take a metal detector to the beach

8. You discover random hairs sprouting from unexpected sectors of your body, so that, in addition to all the other little maintenance tasks you've always performed each day, you find yourself asking questions like: Did I remember to pluck my ears? (from Dave Barry)

9. 6-year-olds routinely guess you’re close to 100 years old if you don’t give them hints before they guess.

10. You don’t even TRY to look hip anymore.

All kidding aside, ask for and be open to feedback when it comes to appearance.

Old is not about age - it's about attitude. No "fading away" for me please.

“It's better to burn out than it is to rust.” - Neil Young

Please vote for Great Leadership for the Best of 2009 Leadership Blogs competition. Thanks for your support!


David Hinde, Orgtopia said...

Hi Dan,

I think you sound a bit ahead of me on the age front, me being a mere 40, but old age can strike at any time. I spent the last year or so getting pretty grumpy with students on my management courses constantly checking their Blackberry's and iPhones in my lessons. I vowed that my cell phone would be a purely phone/texting device. However - one of my colleagues, thank goodness, pulled me aside a few months back and showed me all the great leadership podcasts and blogs they were receiving on their iPhone. So I took a leap of faith and bought one - and I've never looked back. I'm listening to podcasts on the train, reading great blogs like yours on my RSS reader, surfing the web and even Twittering!
It's been a lesson that you've got to move forward, despite the fear that sometimes all that's new looks like it will overwhelm you.
I think staying young is all about embracing and enjoying the uncomfort of change and keeping in that constant state throughout your life whether you're 40, 60 or 100!

Dan McCarthy said...

David –
Thanks for sharing those lessons.
I used to feel the same way about the crackberrys and laptops, until one day I realized many of the participants in my workshops were actually looking up some of the information I was referencing and sharing new information with each other on the topic. Although I’m sure some of them were having a little fun too, but they don’t seem to have a problem multi-tasking and still staying engaged.

Paul Hebert said...

Concerning #1 - always reminds of a story I heard a long time ago in a meeting with a CEO...

Two boys were cleaning a stable. One was working hard to shovel the manure - the other was slacking off. The slacker asked the hard working boy why he was working so hard. The hard worker said, "with a manure pile this big there has to be a pony at the bottom."

Same with business - sometimes when you see a lot of people talking/doing something you don't get - assume there is a pony in there and look for it. Usually there is something to learn. Rarely is EVERYONE else wrong and you are right. Great post Dan.

Michael D. Haberman, SPHR said...

Super post on aging. Some funny stuff and some good lessons. Thanks for the link to my post and the compliment.

Dan McCarthy said...

Paul -
Nice story - thanks!

Michael -
Your post was one of my sources of inspiration - thanks!

Dan McCarthy said...

I deleted a comment by mistake (darn iPhone little keys) by Terry Comp:
Great insights, Dan. From my perspective as an aging baby boomer, one of the keys for leaders who don't want to act and appear "old" is having the humility to recognize that we can always learn something new. Great post!

Anonymous said...

outstanding post.

For guys two really good tips for not looking old are 1) eyewear and 2) shoes. Get someone young to help you buy new sunglasses and eye glasses every 5 years max. Same goes for shoes. You can wing it pretty easily with just those two things in your favor. For women it's more complicated.

- Meg

Debashish Brahma said...

Dear Dan,
A very motivating post, if you take AGE and Health, every human has three types of Age and two types of Health.
a) Chronological Age.
b)Biological Age.
c)Mental Age.
and in two types of health, Mental Health and Physical Health.
Age and health has got a correlation.
In your post the Mental Health and Mental Age matters the most.After all LEADERSHIP IS A MIND GAME.

With Warm Regards,

Wally Bock said...

At 63, I've seen several of my colleagues slip away into premature oldness. It happens when they start thinking they've seen it all before (they haven't) and there's nothing worth trying. Then I think about my father who was fascinated by the new and the interesting up until he died. I think of my mother-in-law, who is a voracious reader and hunter for the new and interesting.

And there's my friend, Tom. He had one of those dot-com successes and made enough that he doesn't need to work anymore. But he does. He's in a new start-up where he may be the only person over 50. He says, "It's great. They keep me young by challenging me. When I wasn't interested in Facebook, they posted a page in my name, knowing I'd have to go see what they did. But I keep them honest, too. I can say, 'I've seen something like this before. Let's see if it can teach us something.'"

I don't want to be old, in the way you describe. But I don't want to use the advantages I've gained from experiencing so much and making all those mistakes over the years.

Dan McCarthy said...

Wally -
Thanks! You're on my list of role models when it comes to how to stay hip.

Kyle Ryman said...

Excellent post. One of the things that I've noticed alot in the Army is that even "old" officers or NCOs who have been in for a full career are still very young looking and physically fit. Are their bodies the same as when they were in their 20s? Nope, but I'd venture to say that they are capable of alot more, physically, than their peers who did not serve. Additionally, you will rarely meet someone who has been in that long whose mind isn't still as fit as a fiddle. Maybe it is all the young soldiers they deal with that keeps them this way.

I'll have to save this post and reference it when I get "old."


Kye Swenson said...

Great advice. Another thing I'm seeing more often in the company I'm working in is for managers to ask younger employees or interns for their prospective on certain things. This is especially helpful for if your company is involved with social media. Even having one-on-one meetings with your employees every so often helps you learn more about certain trends going on, helping you maintain that "hipster" image.