Staying relevant in the workplace as you age

Originally published in the News Star and the Shreveport Times on Sunday, December 4, 2016.

Q: I am a young man in my 20s. I have recently been given managerial responsibility over men twice my age. They are good men, but I can tell they are not completely comfortable being managed by a “youngster.” We’re working through all that, but here’s my question – how do I avoid being in their position when I am their age? How do I stay relevant?

A: There are a few things in life over which you can exercise near absolute control. A very, very few things.

There are, however, many other areas over which you can exercise significant influence.

Staying relevant in the workplace as you ageIf you seek total control over staying relevant, you’ll grow steadily more insecure and nervous, because that’s a standard impossible to meet. But if you’ll relinquish the need to totally control, and embrace the power of simple influence, you might just sleep better at night.

When you say you want to stay relevant, I take it to mean relevant to the generation that will follow you. When you’re in your 40s or 50s, you want to be “relevant” to the next set of men and women like you – sharp young people in their 20s and 30s that are doing everything they can to lap you career-wise.

Every Saturday in the fall, hoards of strong and fast young men take to fields of battle, listening and obeying every word of a man twice their age and half their strength. He has no absolute control (in the physical sense) over them. What he has is influence. And he has that because he is their coach.

If that same old guy tried to put on a helmet and pads and compete alongside the young guys, they would laugh at him. But because he is coaching them, rather than competing against them, they hang on his every word.

This is not about ruling as the boss. This is about serving as a mentor or coach. And just how do you do that?

Give affirmation to others. I think it was Ken Blanchard who suggested, “Wander around and catch people doing things right.” Genuine, thoughtful affirmation is rare and therefore valuable.

This isn’t about being the office cheerleader offering meaningless “rah rah” bromides that no one believes, much less takes seriously. This is about you really studying someone, identifying something that is both true and valuable about them, and then letting them know.

“Joe, I’ve noticed that you really take a great deal of care when preparing these monthly reports. I just want you to know I appreciate it – it makes life a lot simpler knowing that I can count on these things being right when you handle them.”

It may not seem like much to you, but my guess is that Joe will work even harder to make sure those monthly reports are perfect every time.

Grow confidence in others. Genuine confidence grows in the soil of accomplishment. You cannot be confident in that which you cannot perform. But performance is often hampered by a lack of confidence.

Somewhere between “You want me to do what?!” and “No problem!” is a mentor who pushed without being pushy. Knowing how to stretch someone without breaking them is an art.

Affirmation alone will not grow confidence in others. They have to begin to believe in themselves. It’s great that you believe in them (affirmation), but in order to grow in confidence, they will also have to grow in competence.

Develop competence in others. Donald Tabb told me years ago the way he developed others using a five-fold process: tell them why, show them how, get them started, keep them going and help them to reproduce.

Developing competence in others begins with helping them know the why and how a thing is to be done. But that information alone will not overcome the inertia of fear and the unknown. So a good coach gets the process going and keeps it going through specific action steps and a plan of accountability. And you’ll know true competence has been developed when they know how to take someone else through the same process.

The key to remaining relevant is not really about you. It’s about others.

If you devote yourself to a consistent professional habit of giving affirmation, growing confidence and developing competence in others, you’ll not only stay relevant, you may actually stay young.

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