Older colleagues can offer emotional intelligence for your digital intelligence

Wake-up Call: Many young people can read the face of their iPhone better than the face of the person sitting next to them

Airbnb: tech start-up grew with the help of a 52-year-old industry hospitality veteran. Photograph: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Airbnb: tech start-up grew with the help of a 52-year-old industry hospitality veteran. Photograph: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

 

A growing number of people feel like an old carton of milk, with an expiration date stamped on their wrinkled foreheads.

One paradox of our time is that baby boomers enjoy better health than ever and stay in the workplace longer, but feel less and less relevant. They worry, justifiably, that bosses or potential employers may see their age more as a liability than an asset.

We workers “of a certain age” are more like a bottle of fine wine – especially in the digital era. The tech sector, which has become as famous for toxic company cultures as for innovation, could use a little of the mellowness and wisdom that comes with age.

I started a boutique hotel company when I was 26 and, after 24 years as chief executive, sold it at the bottom of the Great Recession. That’s when Airbnb came calling.

In early 2013, co-founder and chief executive Brian Chesky and his two millennial co-founders wanted me to help turn their growing tech start-up into an international giant, as their head of global hospitality and strategy. I was 52 years old, I’d never worked in a tech company and I’d be reporting to a smart guy 21 years my junior. But I took the job.

Chesky had asked me to be his mentor, but I also felt like an intern. I realised I’d have to figure out a way to be both.

I quickly learned that I needed to 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.

The second thing I learned can be summarised in a one-line trade agreement: “I’ll offer you some emotional intelligence for your digital intelligence.”

Many young people can read the face of their iPhone better than the face of the person sitting next to them. We expect young digital-era leaders to miraculously embody relationship wisdoms that we elders had twice as long to learn. I found that being an intern publicly and a mentor privately was essential.

My best tactic was to reconceive my bewilderment as curiosity. I asked a lot of “why” and “what if” questions, forsaking the “what” and “how” questions on which most senior leaders focus. My beginner’s mind helped us see the company’s blind spots.

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 both roles.

This opportunity 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 obsolescence.

That the number of 65-and-older workers in the US last year was 125 per cent higher than in 2000 presages a national human resources tragedy. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Chip Conley is strategic adviser for hospitality and leadership at Airbnb, chief strategy officer at Everfest and the author of “Peak and Emotional Equations.”

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