Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Oct 23, 2009

Youthful Management

Instructor, Caroline Bender

"...we may have to start planning careers that move downward instead of upward through time...Perhaps [one] should reach his peak of responsibility very early in his career and then expect to be moved downward or outward into simpler, more relaxing, kinds of jobs."
Harold J Leavitt, quoted in Alvin Toffler's Futureshock, 1971

The greatest direct supervisory responsibility Miss Bender has ever had was for a class of 52 college freshmen in my care 3 days a week for an hour -- during which time I was to teach them the basic reading comprehension and writing skills they would need to thrive in the Texas state university system. It was my first professional job. I was 22 years old and paid $600/month.

Four years later came dept head responsibility for about 20 paid staff and as many volunteers (some of whom overlapped), a $100,000 budget, capital improvement goals, campus committee requirements and jump-and-run responsibility whenever the President needed more folding chairs. And I had never been happier.

I think of the above quote often as I watch today's youthful managers and junior executives. The Company's top management tier is all younger than I am, and very good at their work. The people in my age group and older -- Late Boomers and Boomers, respectively -- have lower ranking or consulting positions.

In a knowledge-based economy, experience is a commodity. It has to be built the hard way, while young, when one has everything to gain and very little to lose; when the idea of reading trade magazines on the treadmill and a fat business book on vacation sound like excellent career-edge-building opportunities; and you haven't yet discovered that the Company will not keep you warm at night. Once today's knowledge worker does realize that (or makes her millions), there is an gentle dial-down to a consultative role. Eventually, like my generation, they will mentor the next, who are quite sure they are presenting ideas that have never been tried.

In higher education, where I began my career, there was no model for this. The faculty had their adjunct/visiting/emeritis system, where a person ran a cycle of TA, team/junior faculty, professorial ranking and chairmanships.  As one aged, she scaled back down to part-time work, research, then finally just being trotted out occasionally at awards banquets like Johnny Pesky. In administration, one worked one's way to a deanship, provost, perhaps a Presidency -- none of which had tenure, but all of which you hoped you could retire from if the stress didn't kill you.

In those "classical" industries, like education, the arts, and sports, there truly was a ladder one climbed as she got older.  Everyone above you had one stood where you stood.

In 1970, when Alvin Toffler predicted this shift in management skill would flip, and those above you would not have walked in your Doc Martens, he used the training of engineers as an example --  only marginally anticipating that technology and information would be the driving force of the US economy in "the future."

Industry and agriculture were economies rooted in history, which one excelled in over decades of practice. In "the future," he pointed out, the most recently educated and trained will be the most desirable, because knowledge will become obsolete. The young must lead because their skills are current, and the mature must advise them based on their experience, because their training is no longer applicable.

This can be unsettling for both parties, who are in such different stages of human development, much less career development, that the gap widens.  It can be difficult for report to someone your daughter's age; it can be even harder to motivate a staffer who has clocked 25 years already.

Toffler also wrote,
Thus we find the emergence of a new kind of organization man -- a man who,despite his many affiliations, remains basically uncommitted to any organization. He is willing to employ his skills and creative energies to solve problems with equipment provided by the organization, and within temporary groups established by it. But he does so only so long as the problems interest him. He is committed to his own career, his own fulfillment.   [gender bias forgiven; ladies didn't have their own credit cards yet]
Veterans of the protected class, please make an effort with your young officers.  They swing a little wildly, sometimes they can't get out of their own way, but you may not be helping.  Lead by your example and try to meet them where they are. 
Some easy wins, with all sweeping generalizations acknowledged:

1.  Ask for their help
It is good to have peers and mentors to turn to for the hard stuff.  But don't box out your management resources because you think they can't help you with the hard stuff.  Wisdom is not limited to the aged, and Gen X & Y have a few new tricks to teach us about problem-solving.  Gen Y particularly enjoys collaborative work, and Gen X just wants your respect.

2.  Support the mission
If you are not part of the solution, as they say...  Use your experience to support the Boss's vision. Think of Alfred the Butler and help save Gotham.

3.  Stop quoting your resume
Nothing is more annoying to the Boss in her 30s than hearing what you did at this or that company in the 70s or 80s.  It may be a good idea; it may also involve a WATTS line and a Kroy machine.  Just own it.  Suggest it on its own, and figure out how it will work here and now. 

4. Know when you are out of the circle
Sometimes the topic will be "after your time."  It will be a social moment, standing around a water cooler or waiting for a meeting to begin.  If all you have to add is "I was 32!" then keep it to yourself.  Let them have their moment.

5.  Play along
Boomers are the last generation who should complain about the group activities.  The Late Boomers and early Xers were raised in empty houses, and they generally scorn the karaoke night and corn-maze outing.  You will go a lot farther with the Boss (personally and professionally) if you can learn to participate in their reindeer games.

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