Can you teach old dogs new tricks? Yes and no. You heard it here first!
In any organization, there are entrenched employees. After working in the same job for years, they have what I call “institutional memory.” How can you tell? They say things like, “This is how we’ve always done it here.” “This is how it’s done in our industry.” “This is how our clients like us to do this.” But “this is how we do things” often precludes the possibly for doing something new.
A great way to stagnate, but a terrible way to run a competitive, innovative business. How can companies inject new life into their work – and into their people?
The 30/30 Rule
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Every organization needs new blood. The 30/30 rule is an old adage that proposes that 30 percent of your employees should be under 30 years of age. Why? Younger employees have not had the time in the industry to develop institutional memories, biases, and assumptions. You won’t find recent graduate students saying, “That’s how we do it in this industry” or “That’s how customers like us to do it,” because they have no idea! And that’s good.
By bringing in people who do not have assumptions and biases, companies now have employees who will ask questions that haven’t been asked or who challenge established ways of doing things because they don’t make sense to them. They become a catalyst for divergent thinking.
The best example of this is social media. This simply did not exist when older workers started their careers. Our social networks were jobs or schools or clubs, not Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. I’ve had to learn to be proficient in social media to be effective in my role, but am I an expert? Am I really good at it? Do I have the desire to be really good at it? No! But I’m in a business where social media is important, so I need to bring in people who not only understand it, but who like it and do it well.
Typically, these are younger people who grew up with “3rd screen” lifestyle.
Jack Welch ordered 500 senior GE executives to find a “reverse mentor,” to help them learn to use the Internet. Welch, arguably one of the best CEOs in the world, reached out to an employee in her 20s. She helped him get comfortable online.
In this short clip, Welch explains how he “turned the organization upside down” and had the youngest and the brightest teaching older, more experienced, people. So simple, and so effective in infusing new life, and new skills, into an organization.
30/30 or 30/40, 50, 60
Don’t take 30/30 too literally! It doesn’t always mean companies need to card candidates as they come through the door. There are people in their 40s, 50s, and beyond who can think outside the box. I have seen companies, for instance, bring in older senior managers from different industries simply because they don’t have that institutional memory. Instead, they can provide a fresh perspective.
It’s not about age: it’s about perspective. It’s about being able to think creatively, to ask questions, to spark ideas without assumption or bias stopping up the works.
Shaking Up Entrenched Employees
If everyone is from the same industry and has a long history with the company, it can create a stale organization. Back to the original question: can you teach an old dog new tricks? Depends on the dog. Some people, regardless of age, are very willing – and excited – to learn new things. In fact, in some people, this passion only grows as they tack on more years and experiences under their belts.
These lifelong learners enjoy the pursuit of knowledge. They may know how things have always been done here, how things work in the industry – and they’re interested in trying new ways, in experimenting, in questioning.
When people do not have the desire to learn, the chance they’ll change is slim. I worked with an older CEO who didn’t like computers. “I’ll use them for word processing,” he said, “But I don’t need all that other stuff.” “All that other stuff” can mean the difference between success and failure!
Find, and hire, people who keep up with technology, who learn new techniques, who always ask, “What could we do differently?” Those are the employees that companies want to hang on to – whether they’re 25 or 55.