Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, April 18, 2022
by Neil Senturia
The world has created age ranges and categories to better define when you were born and where you stand in the hierarchy of waiting for Social Security, which may or may not outlive you.
Herewith the birth lineup: Gen Z (1997-2012), Millennials (1981-1996), Gen X (1965-1980), Boomers II (1955-1964), Boomers I (1946-1954), and finally Post War (1928 to 1945).
I herewith declare myself Gen O, as in old, as in oy vey, am I old! Still in good health and spirited enough to wage war with the wise guys, but there is an information gap that I cannot fill, and I need a mentor.
Enter James Heskett, Harvard Business School professor, who has asked the question: “Is it time for more reverse mentoring?” The gap in digital information between Gen X and Gen O is wide and not easily forded. And the “seasoned entrepreneur” needs to find a mentor, just as it was often the case when the younger leader sought out an elder.
Now once the Os are willing to acknowledge the digital chasm, how should they prepare to meet their adviser? Twenty-five years ago, Jack Welch of GE fame set out to find out why his executives were not embracing computers and the Internet. His style was direct, and in some ways confrontational. Heskett says that Welch found a young genius at the company, and after getting himself up to speed, “he suggested that his senior colleagues find fellow employees under the age of 25 and meet with them to learn how to navigate in the new technology.” You can understand that a “Welch suggestion” was not really a suggestion at all.
Heskett tells the story of a tech-savvy home caregiver, who, while she was working in his house, came up with an idea, and then “despite her lack of formal training, was able to marshal the needed resources, order supplies, set up a payment system and market on social media — all in one day on her mobile phone.” No friction, add water, instant entrepreneur. And the topper is that Heskett confirmed that she still was able to do her regular work.
The O generation cannot put their head in the sand when it comes to the future, crypto, NFT, 5G, the metaverse and so it goes. Even if you don’t fully understand a new technology, that does not mean it is not real. Maybe you think you can bluff your way. Nope. The company rewards execution, not just vision. And for those new glasses (with augmented reality embedded), you need to visit your optometrist.
This requires “senior executives to make themselves vulnerable to others lower in the organization,” Heskett writes. The Os need some humility and to develop awareness that they need to proactively reach out to accelerate this transfer of knowledge. Failure to do so, and the junior genius will eat your lunch, shortly after she takes your job. It will be better to break bread together.
Maybe you are not a gamer, but that industry generated $155 billion in revenue in 2020. You may not understand an avatar in the metaverse, but your son and daughter do. Remember, TikTok has a billion active users.
My personal solution is to aggressively confess my ignorance. To my delight and surprise, Gen X and Z are more than willing to educate me. One of the rules in my book is “It’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that will kill you.” It is never too late to learn. Both ways.
I gave a lecture to a senior electrical engineering class at SDSU last year. At one point I referenced the importance of having a deep Rolodex. A student raised his hand and asked me what a Rolodex was. No arrogance, I explained that it was Microsoft Outlook right after the dinosaur era.
I am starting a software company in a specific vertical that is creating an NFT platform integrated into the blockchain. A year ago, I thought that was the same as a chain gang. The O generation can learn, but only if we give up a bit of attitude.
Reverse mentoring is valuable and necessary, and I am hopeful my mentors will cut me some slack if they see that I still have a landline.
Rule No. 708: Welcome to the speed of information.