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The article ‘Wisdom at Work: Why the Modern Elder Is Relevant’ appeared in Wharton’s Knowledge publication (Jan 24, 2019) here. It’s a transcript of an interview wherein Airbnb executive Chip Conley discusses the benefits of having an inter-generational workforce (He argues his case in detail in his eponymous where everyone brings something to the table).

This post is almost entirely extracted from the interview transcript, lightly edited and heavily re-sequenced for clarity and easy reading.

Here we go:

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A new challenge for the org:

The fact that almost 40% of workers have a boss younger than them — that number is going to be the majority by 2025.  In fact, some studies show that power is 10 years younger today than it was 20 years ago. But we’re all living 10 years older. So, if power is moving 10 years younger and we’re living 10 years older, society has created a new 20-year irrelevancy gap for people in mid-life and beyond.

It means that we need to start asking ourselves, how do we create an ‘intergenerational potluck’ so that people bring what they know best? And what do they now best?

A challenge for the elders:

The three-stage life of the past — you learn until you’re 25, you earn until you’re 65, and then you retire until you die — that model is evaporating. Also, as the pace of technology innovation increases, companies promote more tech-savvy younger workers into supervisory jobs. Meanwhile, older workers are staying employed longer due to such things as the disappearance of early retirement schemes, recession, etc.

With the power shifting to the young and the irrelevancy gap threatening to widen, there is this period of life, bewildering and anxiety-producing, unless people constantly remake, reinvent and repurpose themselves in ways to make themselves relevant for the second half of their life. It’s not easy because it requires you to shift out of some of your habits and mindsets that you’ve held onto for a long time.

Conley’s proof of his own continued employment and what he brought to the table:

“For 24 years, I was the founder and CEO of a company called Joie de Vivre based in San Francisco that created 52 boutique hotels. We were the second-largest boutique hotelier. In the Great Recession, I decided to sell the company. I had been doing it for a long time. I was ready to move on. Then I spent a couple years thinking about what was next [for me].

There is a great Robert De Niro quote from the movie The Intern [about a senior citizen who became an intern at a shopping startup], which is, “Musicians don’t retire; they quit when there’s no more music left inside of them.” I knew I had music inside of me; I just wasn’t sure whom to share it with. I was lucky enough that Brian Chesky, the CEO of Airbnb, asked me to be his in-house mentor and then come in as the head of global hospitality and strategy, which was supposed to be a part-time job but quickly became full time.”

“Younger people who are digital natives have a digital fluency that may be greater than someone 25 or 30 years older than them — that is true. But to think that someone’s acuity and fluency in one particular scope of work means that they can apply that to anything else is forgetting about all of the human element of business, which requires a certain amount of collaboration and emotional intelligence and leadership skills. Brian Chesky is an amazing CEO. But when I joined, he was 31 and I was 52, and I was his mentor and he was my boss. That was a fascinating relationship — to be mentoring my boss. But five and a half years later, I’m still here.”

“When I joined Airbnb, I think I had been brought in because I was a seasoned expert in my field, which was boutique hotels, hospitality and the travel industry. When I joined five and a half years ago, Airbnb was a very small company, and there was not one person in the company who had a travel or hospitality industry background. I was brought in initially because of that knowledge. That was helpful, and a lot of my networking of people I knew helped. But ultimately, what I think I was able to offer them was this sense of emotional intelligence…”

On Wisdom:

“There have been a number of studies on this, and they’ve shown very little correlation between age and wisdom. As a guy who’s 58, it’s hard to hear that, but there is some evidence that shows that it is not necessarily a correlation. What is correlated is that people actually make sense of their life and their mistakes and their experiences along the way. If you have a process for doing that, then age is correlated with wisdom because you create a pattern recognition.

Wisdom is about being able to see the patterns in things faster than when you’re younger because you’ve seen a lot of patterns and you’ve seen the implications or results of certain things. I think wisdom can be correlated [with age], but it isn’t necessarily correlated. So, just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re an elder.”

“I think knowledge worker is a term to retire now because knowledge is in the computer, it’s in the cloud. You can get out there and find knowledge. In fact, we’re sort of awash in knowledge. But what we could use a little more of is wisdom.

Wisdom is not a plus, plus, plus equation like knowledge is. Wisdom is more of a division equation. You distill the essence of something into what’s important, and that’s what is valuable. I really think that we should change the term knowledge worker and replace it with wisdom worker, because wisdom includes a certain amount of intuitive and human quality that you don’t necessarily get from AI or from your computer. The idea of wisdom making a comeback at a time when we’re so technologically advanced is not that surprising.”

On cognitive diversity:

“And there’s no doubt that cognitive diversity is hugely valuable on teams. If you just have a bunch of 25-year-old guys on a team together, they’re going to compete with each other and try to one-up each other to see who’s the smartest. Put a couple of women in that group, people of color or some older people [and the dynamic changes]. When we think of diversity, we often think almost exclusively of gender, race, and maybe sexual orientation. We don’t think about age very often, even though age is one of the most obvious demographic changes we see.”

On collaboration:

“People go, “Oh, it’s a tech company. It’s just all engineers and individual people in their cubicles doing their work.” No, actually it’s full of teams. And to operate well, teams need to collaborate. Google did a famous study two or three years ago called Project Aristotle and found that the No. 1 common factor among successful and effective teams was psychological safety — people feeling like they could collaborate well without any kind of retribution.

So those collaborative skills are a really important thing that someone in midlife or later can bring to the table – because we have more emotional intelligence is pretty well empirically proven and emotional intelligence is something that can grow with time.”

His message:

* To his generation: “Listen, you can mine your mastery. And while you may not be running the company, you certainly can be an ally to a younger person, as long as we figure out how to create a fluency where we can learn from each other.”

“The hierarchy of the past that says the physics of wisdom only flows from old to young doesn’t make sense anymore. The physics of wisdom moves in both directions; it just depends on the subject matter.”

“The modern elder is appreciated for their relevance, not their reverence, because they’re as much of an intern as they are a mentor.”

* And to the organization: “I started to realize that there are some things they could teach me, like digital intelligence, and there are things that I could teach them, which is emotional intelligence, leadership skills, strategic thinking, etc…”

I recall a story narrated to me some time ago by a young man working in SF based software company offering sales-force automation solution.  It was review time with his boss. He expressed he wasn’t too happy in his current position, role…desired a change to more interesting positions he saw opening up in other parts of the operation. Discussion ensued, the boss tried his best to retain the talented young man. When he (the boss) saw latter standing firm on his move, he ended the discussion and gave a good letter of reference helping him find quickly a new position of his liking in the organization. Which he did before long. As he was settling down in his new role, he got his review results – a promotion, coming from a boss to a youngster who no longer worked with him! And quite predictably the young man till date is doing very well working for the same organization.

The boss had the emotional intelligence to ensure the man got his just due and the organization did not lose the talent.

On Tesla founder Elon Musk:

“He’s 47 years old, if I’m not mistaken. Could he use someone like that? Sure. But he’s relatively far along in terms of his career. He’s a bit of a genius. The thing we have to put to rest is the idea that singular geniuses do this alone. There’s always more than one person involved. The question is, who are you surrounding yourself with? To me, the answer is that you should be surrounding yourself with a diverse group of people, including some people who have some seasoned wisdom at the table.”

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In conclusion: All is far from lost for the modern elder as long as he brings his strengths to bear on what he is doing at the workplace.

End

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