Old dogs, new executive leadership tricks

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

We’ve all heard the saying hundreds of times and most of the time it’s true. You can try but you will usually fail. Try too hard and you’re likely to wind up with a bloody hand and a grumpy dog!

Still, there must be some hope — especially as I become one of those old dogs. Accelerating change continues to shorten the cycle of obsolescence — the amount of time it takes for learning to become obsolete — and I want to believe that I can stay sharp and relevant. All this change creates a personal skills gap and all of us must fill that gap or become obsolete.

I’ve seen it in practice many times. Usually, someone around 50 years old loses their job and ends up in my office discussing their situation. Inevitably, they want to find a job similar to the one they lost and be paid a bit more than they were making. Unfortunately, those positions are often disappearing and the remaining roles pay far less than they did at their peak. And when I ask them about their updated skills I frequently discover they have a personal skills gap.

“AGE DISCRIMINATION!” they cry in outrage, despite the fact that the current unemployment rate is 3.2% in Wisconsin and we need every available body to fill open jobs. Even before the recent surge, employers preferred candidates with deep experience — regardless of their age. Prove your energy and skill levels, and a bit of gray serves as an advantage.

It’s easy for any of us to fall into a personal rut. We’re all so busy, so much so that life often interferes with ongoing learning and development. Once we’re done with work and family time, there isn’t much opportunity to strengthen our personal skills. Soon, we’re in our routine and our personal learning falls off the agenda — and the countdown toward obsolescence begins!

It happens to me all the time. I try to be a proactive lifelong learner, but life happens. We launched the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing and Productivity (WCMP). I engaged with a new national manufacturing extension partnership (MEP) initiative. Karen wants more quality time with me. Daily tasks were easier to complete than any type of serious improvement work, and learning fell off the schedule.

That fact hit me between the eyes last week as we integrated social media into the WCMP marketing plan. I was an early adopter of social media — one of the first 1,000 people on LinkedIn — and I’m fairly active on a variety of platforms. I do okay. Still, one day of leading-edge training demonstrated how much my skills have slipped and my knowledge eroded. Change strikes an old dog again!



Can we really teach those old dogs new tricks? The world changes quickly and those changes impact all our lives. For old dogs like me, that change presents a stark choice: Hang on tight and hope for the best or embrace the change and discover new ways to thrive. I believe lifelong learning forms the core of future success by helping leaders understand changes and find new ways to leverage those changes.

Leaders who are also lifelong learners set the stage for others’ success, as well. These leaders make it easier for us to embrace new ideas, engage leading technology, and catalyze transformation that results in lasting success for their organizations. They embrace radical engagement, reaching far and wide to involve unusual people and fresh ideas. All of this creates a new virtuous circle where learning uncovers possibilities and results in engagement, which leads back to new learning. The ongoing cycles makes the people and organizations involved stronger and better equipped to face the future.

Can we teach old dogs new tricks? Geez, I hope so! It provides the opportunity to engage millions of people in new ways — and it means there’s still hope for me!

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