Lessons From Madison Avenue: Imagine Your Business Without Wisdom & Experience

Does history matter in your organization? Does experience have real value for future performance? Marketing maven Tom Goodwin spoke to this problem recently in a compelling post “Why I Miss Old People in the Workplace.” Goodwin highlights three specific problems you should be concerned about when managing a multi-generational workforce. I’ve suggested at least one step to start meeting each of these challenges.

When a business doesn’t know what it doesn’t know

Tom Goodwin wrote:

Occasionally, on the rare events where I get to listen to some of the wonderful old folk of advertising, it quickly makes me realize how much we as an industry suffer from a lack of wisdom. We have incredible levels of vision, an abundance of precociousness, brilliant creativity, but as an industry we pretty much have no wisdom at all.”

Is Goodwin giving us a peak into the scenario many organizations will face as experienced baby boomers retire? Of course, a lot of retiring workers don’t take essential know-how with them and are easily replaced. But can your firm be run entirely by 30-year-olds? Are you doing whatever you can to help your most valuable older workers stay engaged with the business? One way to do this is to regularly conduct “stay interviews” instead of just waiting to conduct “exit” ones.

Can anyone think strategically to help our clients?

Goodwin shows what has happened in marketing and advertising when a strategic view is missing:

 As an industry we've moved down from being key members of our clients' board to people who get clients' junior staff drunk at Cannes and talk about "likes" on Facebook.

…Look around, look at our people, look at our understanding of key business problems, and look at what we care about. It's not remotely hard to see why most CEOs won't even think to be a part of a pitch process or meet the agency, and won't consider marketing agencies in the same league as management consultants.

One of the most common complaints I hear regularly from CEOs is the difficulty of finding young leaders who can think strategically and systemically. Hospital presidents can’t find executives who think beyond their service line. And sales leaders are desperate for technical sales people who can deal more broadly with increasingly complex client problems.

Fortunately, these skills can be taught to some extent, although it takes time and an investment from senior management to role model what’s needed. I ran a program for a sophisticated sales team recently on “How to Have Strategic Conversations.”

Are you taking into account the "big picture" perspectives of your most effective experienced employees? Are you giving them the tools they need to mentor colleagues to develop more systemic thinkers?

An invaluable veteran or a grumpy blowhard?

Goodwin insists that older workers must confidently step up and share their experiential perspective, which is badly needed in the advertising industry:

We need to understand what is a fad and what is a cultural shift. And what would really help do that would be a wise person of a certain age who understands change.

… Older, wiser, smarter people please chip in. Please don't ever think you're not exactly what we need. Don't be intimidated by the talk of change, the buzzwords, raise your hand and join the debate.  Embrace the new, see what really has changed. Flex your mobile muscles, think about what streaming really means. Your instincts are right, your input is needed, please don't let anyone suggest otherwise.

If only this kind of cross-generational dialog was so simple. In practice, it is fraught with the potential for all kinds of misunderstanding. In fast changing industries, older employees are much more likely to be intimidated from speaking up and to lose confidence in the value of their know-how. On the other hand, veterans must also be agile enough to adapt, so they’re experience stays relevant and respected in the new environment.

There are no simple answers for how to keep experiential knowledge accessible and transferrable in today’s organizations. But the first steps are (1) awareness of the costs of critical knowledge loss, (2) making the problem discussable, and (3) prioritizing your risks.  Taking these steps can help reduce how much you miss the “old people” in your workplace.