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


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