We live in complicated times. The generally accepted thesis is that businesses need to transform to survive and this transformation needs to be particularly digital in nature. And so the theory continues: we need to hire younger and younger people, who have more digital intelligence.
But here’s the thing: being digitally savvy does not equate to being emotionally intelligent; it does not make up for sound judgement – the kind of wisdom, knowledge and network that comes from decades of experience. No matter how much AI or autonomous systems get implemented into business, the human element remains a vital part and this is where we can turn to an untapped resource – people who may be being passed over for roles because of their age and perceived lack of value to organisations.
Companies are finding it harder and harder to secure the human resources they need. Yet there is a pandemic of global population ageing. A person turns 65 in China every 3 seconds. In the last five years the number of people over 60 in China has increased by 22% and reached 230 million.
China is not alone. The world population is ageing and with it comes a real shortage of human resources, unless we radically rethink our approach. We need to see older generations less as a burden and more as an asset. They represent a massive business opportunity, an untapped resource.
We need to shift our thinking and turn eldership into a more evolved form of leadership.
Hazel McCallion is an inspiration: she retired as Mayor of Canada’s 6th largest city at the age of 93. A year later she was appointed Chief Elder Officer with Revera. This month she gave an engaging talk at the Ageing Well Revolution Conference in Adelaide, Australia – at the age of 96.
We need to move beyond ageism and embrace the wealth of wisdom that comes from this all important demographic. Diversity has a time dimension to it too. Elders will be the magical element that crystallises true organisational transformation.
But the role of Chief Elder Officer is not an automatic rite of passage for people of a certain age. It does require a shift in thinking and positioning.
Here are three things people can do to ensure they embrace the role of elder:
1. You need to develop a beginner’s mind of infinite possibility. You need to step down from control and power and take on the role of wise counsel – use your beginners mind and ask questions rather than giving advice.
2. You need to ask yourself: what can I learn from this situation, what can these people teach me?
3. You need to ask people: what can I do to ensure you are giving of your best? Be less of an adviser and more of a curator: help your people to find what is most important for them and their business to work on; prioritise beyond the accoutrements of ‘success’ and the constructs of busyness to determine what produces the most impact; and curate their gems, helping them nurture these into core strengths.
Here are two further inspirational examples from Silicon Valley. Firstly, 57 year old Fred Kofman is an example of an elder being invited to work with the CEO of a company to both transform it and the world. In 2013 LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner asked him to join the team and help bring wisdom and compassion to the business and the business world.
The business coach and author of Conscious Business: How to Build Value through Value dived into the company as VP for Leadership and Organisational Development. He proceeded to crystallise a culture of conscious business within this high tech business. In May, 2018 he will publish his new book, The Meaning Revolution: The Power of Transcendent Leadership.
As the company’s Philosopher, Fred listened like a wise elder while also reframing leadership for Jeff and the team.
And secondly, Chip Conley is another wonderful example of a valued elder. He joined Airbnb at the age of 52 after their CEO, Brian Chesky, asked him to be his mentor. But this was the former hoteliers first foray into the tech industry and he simultaneously felt like an intern. He needed to find a way to be both mentor and intern and talks about his experience in the Harvard Business Review:
I quickly learned that I needed to strategically forget part of my historical work identity. The company didn’t need two CEOs, or me pontificating wisdom from the elder’s pulpit. More than anything, I listened and watched intently, with as little judgment or ego as possible. I imagined myself as a cultural anthropologist, intrigued and fascinated by this new habitat. Part of my job was to just observe.
My best tactic was to reconceive my bewilderment as curiosity, and give free rein to it. I asked a lot of “why” and “what if” questions, forsaking the “what” and “how” questions on which most senior leaders focus.
Boomers and Millennials have a lot to offer, and learn from, each other. Enter the “Modern Elder,” who serves and learns, as both mentor and intern, and relishes being both student and sage. The opportunity for intergenerational learning is especially important to Boomers, as we are likely to live 10 years longer than our parents, yet power in a digital society has moved 10 years younger. This means Boomers could experience 20 additional years of irrelevance and obsolescence. That the number of 65-and-older workers last year was 125% higher than in 2000 presages a national human resource tragedy.
Wisdom is about pattern recognition. And the older you are, the more patterns you’ve seen. There’s an old saying I love: “When an elder dies, it’s like a library has burned down.” In the digital era, libraries — and elders — aren’t quite as popular as they used to be. But wisdom never grows old.
Chip wrote Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow. His latest book expands on his views on the Modern Elder: Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder. It will be published in September, 2018.
UPDATE: Forbes has published a piece in which they explore Chip’s experience at airbnb and his thoughts around the Modern Elder. They also reveal his plans to create a Gap Year for Elders:
Conley also plans to launch a retreat center, called the “Modern Elder Gap Year Academy,” to help talented people rethink their skills in mid-career. The program, which will accommodate up to 25 guests at a time, will open in November 2018 at a beachfront complex Conley is building on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It will offer training in modern elder skills, as well as supplemental instruction in personal technology, small business development, languages, mindfulness, yoga and other subjects.
Conley hopes the experience will be a bit like joining “a secret society and making connections, since you are learning these things in a beautiful setting with 24 other people who are going through a similar life experience.”