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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

by Jeff Gau on August 9, 2012

In today’s workplace, we are constantly challenged with new products, services and techniques that impact how we conduct business. It’s safe to say, we are working in a completely different reality today than when I started my career 30 years ago. Keeping up isn’t always easy. That’s why I wanted to address this question:

“How do you teach an old dog new tricks?”

I recently shared this concept with a colleague of mine who responded by saying she was not an "old dog." I smiled back at her before I asked her to define an old dog. We soon came to the same conclusion. I’d say you are an “old dog” if you are two generations away from those starting careers today or if you are closer to the end of your career than the beginning.

Yes, we often like to think of ourselves as contemporaries – no matter our age. But as we become “more experienced,” it gets more difficult for that to be true. The latest generation of employees grew up in a world with texting, smartphones and wireless technology. They naturally know it – while others of us have had to take the time to learn the new tricks.

The key to staying contemporary is to be aware of what’s coming next and be willing to participate. Here are five ways I’ve found success teaching this old dog and others I know new tricks:

1. Keep your mindset on the youngest workers.
Just the other day, I was talking to a CEO about a phone system and encouraged him to consider buying one with texting capability. He questioned it because most of his workers would never use it. That may be true – today. But based on workforce demographics and technology trends, texting will definitely become an important feature during the useful life of the system. The point is you need to be mindful of your future workers and their communication style when making business decisions that span more than five years.

2. Don’t be afraid to promote the most qualified.
While that sounds obvious, many times we put too much emphasis on tenure and age. Several of our directors lead team members that are 10 to 20 years their senior and were promoted because they were best equipped to lead a brand new initiative for our company. Promotions like these keep others attentive and encourage them to keep their own saw sharp. What you “used to know” can become less important in your future career if you don’t stay relevant.

3. Dig in and lead by example.
I cannot expect other members of my team to stay contemporary if I am not. That’s why I make it a point to participate in customer activities, which may include business development calls, presentations, and resolving satisfaction issues. Being involved helps me stay current with client buying motives. It’s also important to be a “fast follower" of technology adoption. I got one of the first iPhones and iPads, and I make it a point to know how to use them. I was an early adopter to Facebook and LinkedIn. I was also personally committed to using video conferencing technology to improve communication throughout our offices. Staying actively involved in the field and using current tools can help you be identified as a contemporary leader.

4. Socialize with people in younger generations.
Yes, what you do for fun can help you stay contemporary. Sure, I have many friends my age, but I also have quite a few who are much younger. It’s a good practice to socialize with people younger than you to get a better understanding of their generation. The conversation and interaction you have at a concert, ball game, or at the cabin will help you connect better with the emerging workforce.

5. Know your limitations and ask for help.
You’re never too old to have a mentor. I mentor many younger professionals and up and coming leaders, but I also have asked a few of them to mentor me on topics they know better. Leaders cannot be afraid to say they don’t understand and then seek to build that knowledge. That takes confidence. I remember when I first took over the company, I knew very little about the copier industry, but I was confident I could learn it. And I did with the help of some good mentors, most of them younger than me.

Yes, old dogs can learn new tricks and whether we like it or not, everyone becomes an “old dog” someday. It won’t be long before even the youngest of workers will need to sharpen their skills. It’s a good practice to get in the habit of learning new tricks early in your career so it’s easier to remain contemporary when you begin to fit into the “old dog” category.

I enjoy reading your questions. Keep them coming. Submit a leadership question today and I will try to answer it in an upcoming post.

Topics: Learning, Contemporary, Mentoring, Leadership

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