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Why you need to be both a mentor and an intern at work (REVIEW)

wisdomThis review first ran in the Sept. 29 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Wisdom @Work: The Making of a Modern Elder

By Chip Conley

Crown Publishing

$36

The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope.

Philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said it. And those of us in the back half of our careers are uniquely positioned to give this to our younger colleagues.

The timing’s right for elders to make a comeback in the workplace, says Chip Conley, author of Wisdom @ Work. Conley sold his boutique hotel business and joined Airbnb when he was 52 years old, working alongside 20-something digital natives and reporting to a CEO who was young enough to be his son.

Lots of us will find ourselves in similar situations at work. In 2002, 24.6 per cent of the American workforce was 50 years or older. That grew to 32.3 per cent in 2012 and could hit 40 per cent by 2032.

Every organization would be wise to adapt to an aging workforce and hire more people like Conley. Demographic diversity should be included along with gender and ethnicity as employers make the move to becoming more inclusive, welcoming and supportive organizations.

Along with providing “wisdom insurance” to young leaders, elders can offer high emotional intelligence, good judgment built on decades of experience, specialized knowledge, humility, holistic thinking, an ability to see the big picture and a vast network of contacts. Elders do a masterful job of combining know-how and know-who.

“In an era of machine intelligence, emotional intelligence and empathy – something older people have in spades – are more valuable than ever,” says Conley. “As we enter midlife, we embark upon a creative evolution that amplifies our specialness while editing out the extraneous. After a lifetime of accumulation, we can concentrate on what we do best, what gives us meaning and what we want to leave behind.”

Before signing on as an elder, you should know the job description’s changed. You’re no longer dispensing words of wisdom or being counted on to have all the clever answers. Instead, you’re now expected to be both a mentor and an intern. The transfer of knowledge needs to flow both ways.

So take a hard pass if you believe there’s nothing left for you to learn or if you think your primary responsibility is to provide adult supervision and be the only grown-up in the room.

“If you’re only making wise pronouncements from the pulpit, you’re unlikely to grow much of a congregation,” says Conley. “It’s time to stop with the generational name-calling and recognize we all have something to learn from each other.

“With five generations in today’s workplace, we can either operate as separate, isolationist countries with generation-specific dialects and talents co-existing on one continent, or we can find ways to bridge these generational borders and delight in learning from people both older and younger than us.”

To succeed as an elder, Conley says we must be willing and able to evolve, learn, collaborate and provide counsel.  “Being a Modern Elder is all about reciprocity. Giving and receiving. Teaching and learning. Speaking and listening. Everyone gets older, but not everyone gets elder. The first just happens (if you’re lucky and healthy). The other you have to earn.”

Conley’s written a playbook for those of us who want to be a teacher, mentor, student and intern. Why be a carton of milk with an expiration date when you can be a bottle of wine that gets better, and more valuable, with age.

The last word goes to Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky, who wisely hired Conley and leaned on him as an elder. “When you open your eyes, ears and heart, you’ll find that everybody has a story worth hearing. And if you’re paying close enough attention, someday your story could help others write their own.”

@jayrobb serves as director of communications at Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

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