Friday, October 4, 2019

The Experienced Voice: A note on the value of my generation in leadership transitions

As I enter the last third of my 60s, and as I read articles that suggest my generation should exit the stage quietly, I’ve been pondering my role and the roles of my generational peers.  That pondering is coupled with the current election.  Some of the contenders for the 2020 presidential election are people in their 70s.  It’s interesting that of the first five U.S. presidents only one was barely older than 60 when he took the office (John Quincy Adams was 61).  We waited 227 years to elect someone initially in his 70s.  Overall, we’ve only had 10 presidents out of 44 before the current president who began office in their 60s.  It’s not surprising, then, that the more recent candidacies of Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Elizabeth Warren have begun conversations about how old is too old. 

Does age correlate to skill or level of contribution?  Of course not.  As I write this, Warren Buffet still ably leads Berkshire Hathaway, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg sits on the Supreme Court.  Both are people in their 80s and by all accounts remain skilled at what they do.  Even if these two examples are anomalies, people live longer and the lifespan of the average person’s career is much longer than it was in 1776 or even 1976.  So it makes sense that someone would be longer in a leadership role, right?

In truth, there isn’t a magic age or age range at which a leader is ready to step aside.  And stepping aside because of age actually isn’t the question at all.  Change to the next generation is inevitable.  That’s the case whether the current leadership in an organization is on the verge of moving on, or whether the current leadership is decades away from turning over control.  The most important question, whether we’re discussing the role of leading the nation or a local club chapter, is about the plans to bring the next generation into leadership.     

As we explore that planning, those of us nearer the end of our participation than the beginning need to ask what our role should be in the transition.  That’s important because the transition won’t magically happen.  While the technical skills of leadership and management can be taught in seminars, workshops, and degree programs, there’s more to leadership than the technical skills of how to manage personnel, organize a project, or generate a budget.  Those of us who’ve taken leadership and management roles in our lives had to learn the complexity required in those roles through experiences.  It’s in consideration of what we’ve learned and how we developed our skills and knowledge that we must find a role for ourselves in the transition to the next generation of leaders.  While our less experienced colleagues can learn from seminars and classes and workshops, they must also benefit from what we’ve learned. 

It’s the idea of being the experienced voice.  That’s being able to share knowledge and the perspectives that take years to develop – not as rules that have to be followed, but as a source of wisdom, a word that often gets forgotten when we think of management and leadership.  If an experienced voice is part of the ongoing mixture of ideas and discussions, it can help contextualize and add perspective – it can offer wisdom.  When all people hear is that experienced voice of wisdom, the danger is that they’re only hearing the past; so it’s important that the experienced voice isn’t the only voice.  The experienced voice can’t be dominant; but it should be integrated as part of any conversation about an organization’s purpose or actions.

Of course, that means colleagues need to be willing to listen to us.   However, in my experience, that’s rarely the issue.  I have long ago tired of the “how to manage millennials” or the “unmotivated Generation X” babble that seems to be permeating current consultants’ spiels.  You know:  the ones who tell us that younger generations are self-defining and unable to take direction because they were raised on a diet of getting praised for every childhood act.  In my experiences in managing and leading people, I find that defining colleagues by the years they were born is about effective as relegating them to personality type by their astral birthdate.  Instead, I’ve found that most people of any age listen to advice and direction if it’s carefully explained and rationally justified from someone they’ve learned to trust.  Therefore, building those trusted relationships is critical to being an experienced voice. 

That means leaders need to be aware of who our colleagues are and remain committed to their success as much as the success of the organization.  In truth, those two successes are symbiotic, with one not possible without the other.  If I work with my colleagues from a position of mutual connectivity and respect, they’re more likely to see my perspectives as worth hearing about.  Will that work for every employee?  Not all of them, since some people (regardless of their generation) are self-absorbed and unwilling to listen to any other voice besides their own.  But it will work with the majority, and it’s the majority whom you need to build an organization.

Also, being an experienced voice means contributing to the future without restricting it.  We need to give control to others.  Whether the people we lead are administrative assistants or other managers, we need to be giving them opportunities to independently develop projects that they initiate and complete.  There need to be processes where people at all levels are encouraged to see their ideas merged into the strategic direction of the organization.  That means allowing administrative assistants, for example, to develop onboarding training for new employees.  Or it means allowing mid-level managers independently to reorganize their units in more effective ways.  

This is where a critical component of being the experienced voice has to happen:  Succession planning isn’t about who’ll be next at the top of the organization.  Effective succession planning requires a culture of leadership development where all people in the organization see themselves as leading.  Not in the sense that they all go in their own way, but in the sense that they control their efforts and see their efforts as moving the organization toward its aims.  People who have freedom to manage their work and make it more effective will innovate and create; and they’ll become leaders.  Their innovations will lead others and create a culture of innovation around the strategic aims of the organization.  Once all people see themselves as leaders, then finding the next executive who manages and leads the entire organization isn’t as daunting.  It becomes a natural next step in the organization’s work of self-renewal.  The experienced voice works toward that daily.

In traditional communities, we with years of experience would be named “elders” who are part of the community structure.  In those communities, we would be given the tasks of teaching and counseling, even after the time when we were done leading and managing.  That’s one place where many organizations miss an opportunity.  The current process for many organizations is to have someone retire and leave the organization to successors.  That happens for directors of non-profits as it does for corporate CEOs. While we sometimes bestow titles in that transition (in my profession, it’s “emeritus”), those titles carry little value in furthering the work of the organization.  In an era when we live longer with vibrant cognitive and physical agility, that system becomes actually a disincentive for us to leave our leadership roles.  When leaders do finally retire, they typically disconnect and the organization loses their wisdom and institutional knowledge. 

 Both as we approach the end of our formal leadership and afterward, our most important work is to develop our skills to be the experienced voice.  We need to cultivate the leadership of others in our organization as we consider what comes after our departure.  We need to find ways to become a teacher and counselor after we leave formal leadership – in ways that support the new vision that new leaders will bring.  After all, new leaders will mean a new direction that will differ from the past.  Success will mean understanding the past and building on it.  But it can’t mean replicating it.  Ask Packard automobiles or Wang or Tower Records what happened to them when they couldn’t evolve.  The important value in leadership change is that it offers the opportunity for new directions and new energy.  So those of us who are transitioning away from leadership and management need to understand and support those changes in this new role as elders providing the experienced voice.  And those who replace us need to be wise enough to understand that.