A few months ago, I was working with a group of CEOs in the healthcare industry, and we were talking about what it takes to attract and keep the best talent in their workplaces. Most of our discussion was about the top talent – smart, passionate, driven, and highly motivated – but one CEO asked the question:
“How do you motivate the people who have been there for a long time and just don’t want to change?”
More recently, another client – in the financial services industry this time – asked me a similar question:
“In our industry, we have a large body of highly-experienced employees who have been very effective for many years. But when younger generations are brought in to challenge the status quo and take the organisation forward, it leads to an inevitable conflict. How do leaders take those experienced workers on the journey with them?”
It’s a good question.
First, there are some people who just refuse to change, no matter what. They don’t realise there’s another way, don’t recognise the need for another way, or just don’t want to do things another way.
But those are not the people I’m talking about – and they are not the people my two clients above were talking about, either. We’re talking about people who genuinely have a lot to offer, and would contribute if they could, but they feel threatened because what has always worked for them doesn’t work anymore.
They might be worried that if they let their guard down, they might be overtaken, overrun, and over the hill.
How do you bring them along on the journey?
First, be careful of your language! If you use phrases like “need to change”, “don’t want to change”, “stuck in their ways”, or even “bring along on the journey”, you’re suggesting they need to be pushed, pulled, or carried. It’s almost like saying you would rather not have them there, but it’s hard work to let them go, so you’re going to make the best of a bad situation.
That’s not necessarily true.
These people do have value to offer – value that you can’t get anywhere else. And that value becomes obvious when you follow this simple principle:
Separate the “why” from the “how”.
When Albert Einstein was teaching at Princeton University, he was criticised by the staff because he gave his students the same exam two years in a row. But he said, “The questions are the same, but the answers are different”.
You don’t have to be an Einstein to know the same thing applies now. The world has changed, and there are different answers to the same old questions.
But everybody is talking about the answers, and many leaders forget about the important questions that haven’t changed.
The really important questions in your organisations are “Why?” questions, which are questions about your mission, purpose, vision, and values. For example:
- Why was this organisation built?
- What do we really stand for?
- What problems do we really solve for our customers?
- If we have to choose between A and B, what matters most in making a wise decision?
- What gets us through the tough times?
- When have we stood up for what really matters?
Of course, all these questions don’t literally start with “Why”, but – make no mistake – they are questions about your organisation’s “why”.
And who knows the answers to these questions? Those older, highly-experienced people you were thinking you had to drag kicking and screaming into the future.
Their experience has given them valuable insights, and that in turn leads to wisdom.
If you’re a leader, make them the guardians of your “Why”. They might not know how to travel the path you choose for your future, but they know why you should choose that path.
Use them for your compass, and then let others draw the map.
How can you make this work in practice?
If you value their experience, insights and wisdom, of course you will look for ways to share that in your organisation. And there are ways – many ways – to do just that. Here are just a few:
- Pay them what they are worth!
- Ask them to mentor younger, less experienced people.
- Invite them to be “reverse mentored” by younger, less experienced people.
- Interview them for your company blog, newsletter, podcast, or vodcast.
- Invite them to join project teams – even if it’s just occasionally – to provide their insights and wisdom.
- Create opportunities for them to share stories about people living the organisation’s purpose, mission, and values.
- Give them the same development opportunities you offer everybody else.
- Ask them how they think they can best share their experience and insights.
There’s wisdom in this diversity.
There’s a big push now for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, but one of the most neglected areas is age diversity. Even when it’s considered, many leaders think only of the diversity that younger people – the Generation Ys (Millennials) and Generation Zs – bring. But don’t forget the value in the hearts and minds of your most experienced people.
When you combine their wisdom with the passion and drive of your “bright young things”, that’s when you truly future-proof your organisation.