We think different.
That might be exactly why we benefit each other.
Did you see this article about ageism in tech? It talks about how older workers are edited out of the innovation process, being sidelined as obsolete in this fast rising “all new” thing we’re creating here. It doesn’t say much about how the companies that are excluding them are affected, but more on that later.
<NOTE: The original article seems to have been removed. This, however Silicon Valley’s Brutal Ageism, via New Republic covers similar themes.>
My friend Francine Hardaway sent it my way. Maybe you know her. She doesn’t even live here (she’s in AZ) but she’s a go-to touchstone for an illustrious Valley list. They call her when decisions get tough or assumptions unsustainable. She cuts through the hubris to the core of a problem, and doesn’t hold back when offering solutions. I introduce her to friends who get into sticky situations and call her when I face them myself. She’s not here to be my friend (although she is). She’s here to make me better.
Francine leads with this attitude: “What you think of me is none of my business.” She’s too committed to this industry, too passionate about leadership, too impatient helping high-potential startups succeed to give a damn if people don’t agree with her. Or when people notice that she’s older.
But people do notice. And if that makes them dismiss her value, as the companies in the article dismissed their senior talent, they may be increasing the odds they’ll fall vulnerable to some of the biggest challenges facing rising companies today.
A client called me this morning, one I’ve worked with for several years. Tough week, he told me: lots of conflict in his company, right at the moment when they’re turning the corner and starting to grow. Gridlock as decisions get more complex. Finger-pointing and lack of accountability on success metrics. Role clarity and even clarity on who’s in charge of role clarity. And everybody blaming him, the CEO, for not having all the answers.
The whole team is under 30. “We were all friends,” he said. “But once the rubber met the road it was like something fractured.” As they were “building,” he said, people had places to hide. Now that they’re “doing,” they’re all under the spotlight: those things they once wished for have now become real.
“I think it’s that none of us really know what we’re doing,” he added, speaking quietly. “We feel lost. Naked. Like that emperor who has no clothes. We don’t want anyone to know it’s like this. But nobody inside has the answers.”
It made me think about Apple, back when I was his age. I never felt lost there. I had people I could learn from. I could watch them in action and learn from them. They inspired me. Showed me a path. Came down hard on me when I could be doing better.
They were all people older — sometimes much older — than me.
Our differences created a healthy ecosystem. They grounded our reality. We elevated their vision. Together, we built things that we couldn’t have done without each other.
I can’t imagine Apple, or even a team at Apple, as a homogeneous group made up of people like I was then. We never would have made it. The tempering, structure, and reality checks our “elders” imposed helped us starry-eyed neophytes do our best. Our idealism and fresh ideas leveraged the value of their skills, networks, and pattern recognition. We all won.
But a lot of places are different than that today, and maybe not for the better. Even if we’re not in a bubble, we don’t know exactly what we are in. And we’re putting some big bets on things that might benefit from a bit of pattern recognition (not to mention a “think different” perspective) should changes start bubbling.
We may be asking too much if we’re expecting talented young idea generators to also be everything else a company needs, especially when the going gets tough.
Example: Uber. We got a scratch-and-sniff a few weeks back. The disconnect between leadership’s echo chamber and market reality cost the company time, reputation, and even active users. Could a wider set of perspectives have diverted that damage?
Homogeneous founding teams (whatever age they are) drink the same Koolaid a lot more easily than diverse ones. They can fake each other out, hide behind the smart ideas and startupy attitudes. Throw some different perspective into the mix and the tests get harder, the checks and balances healthier.
There’s less risk that the emporer will show up missing clothes.
But there’s a problem.
The companies in the article Francine sounded like places where older employees needed to keep their heads (and opinions) down lest they risk their jobs. Think about that. Is either party winning if employees feel like they need to look down and stay quiet?
And us — the people with the experience? Are we really going to blame young founders or a changing culture for all of that? “All suffering is self-inflicted,” as the saying goes. On some level, we’ve let our value slide.
So this message is for the people who are on the receiving end of the ageism the article talks about: what are we doing, us, ourselves, to stand up for the benefit our experience and perspective brings? Are we buying in to this myth that we’re somehow not as cool or smart or able as this rising wave that’s supposedly eating the world?
Is it how fast they’ve made money or built a bubble or started an experiment that might look terrifyingly shaky as it moves out into the real world, ready to outpace even the winners of the past?
If so, it’s not the companies we should look to to change: it’s ourselves. How can we take stock of our real ability to contribute, of how relevant — no, essential — experience and expertise is to this rising wave? How can we challenge those assumptions? Stop caring if others think we’re all startupy enough for the startup club, and use our proven, complementary strengths to help them win the game?
If we’re not driving change on that level, we’re limiting our own contribution and shirking responsibility, too. This rising wave deserves better. They’re solving bigger problems than anyone should have to do on their own. Like the people who mentored us, we have a responsibility to offer the leadership and perspective we’ve cultivated along the way, confidently and generously, knowing we’re all better off for the exchange.
Not all of them need it. Not all of them want it. That’s ok: move on and find someone who does. As the reality around us has clearly stated, there’s enough opportunity — and challenge — to go around.