Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tempered by Time

As I walked toward the waterfront this morning, my mind filled with thoughts of the late Senator Ted Kennedy, the bells of the local Catholic church rang out in an extended carillon. That ancient sound brought to mind one of the less-discussed lessons to be learned from the life of Senator Kennedy: the importance of time.

We live in a sped-up era when currency — meaning both cash and timeliness — is generally valued more than experience. This is a society driven forward by the snapping fingers and tapping toes of impatience. We want perfection and we want it now; things that disappoint or fail to deliver are discarded.

In the corporate world, this impatience is a double-edged sword. It cuts down both young people who fail to instantly exhibit whatever traits are in demand at the moment and older workers who chafe against the demand for immediate results.

Senator Kennedy, however, stands as proof of the continuing value of a principle from a different era: tempering by time. This was a man who was full of early promise but nearly lost everything to terrible tragedies and his own personal flaws. It was only with time that he finally recognized his true calling and achieved his true greatness.

Here's to Senator Kennedy, and to time.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

It's Time to Retire "Retirement Age"

The term "retirement age" has lost its relevance. When the eligibility age for Social Security was first set in 1935, the average American lifespan was 61.7 years. Today, thanks to some great leaps forward in medicine, it's 77.8 years.

Longer Lives = Longer Careers. A rising share of Americans over age 50 are not planning to retire any time soon — some because they don't want to and many because they can't afford to. A 2007 study by McKinsey & Company — completed well before home values and stock investments evaporated — found this:
  • 38% of Baby Boomers said it was "extremely likely" that they would work beyond the traditional retirement age — primarily for financial reasons
  • only 15% said it was unlikely
But where will these older workers find employment? Although layoffs are rampant in every age group, anecdotal evidence suggests higher-salaried, older workers are affected more than most. Older workers also face bigger hurdles finding new jobs. Even in 2005, a two-state sample study by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College found that younger workers were 40% more likely to be called in for an interview than those over 50. Overall, the study concluded that older workers stay unemployed approximately three times longer than younger ones.

Things are even more dismal in specific business sectors. Writing for MediaPost, advertising industry executive Brent Bouchez notes that "nationwide, less than 5% of agency personnel are over 50"; similarly, a 2008 article in the New York Times reported this: "In an industry survey, a majority of technology companies candidly said they would not hire anyone over 40."

In addition to being illegal, that discriminatory policy is also just plain dumb. More about this in future posts.

  • "Why Baby Boomers Will Need to Work Longer," McKinsey Quarterly, November 2008
  • "Do Older Workers Face Discrimination?" by Joanna N. Lahey, An Issue in Brief, Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, July 2005
  • "Maybe Peter Pan Should Move to Madison Avenue" by Brent Bouchez, MediaPost Engage:Boomers blog, June 22, 2009
  • "For a Good Retirement, Find Work. Good Luck." by Steve Lohr, New York Times, June 22, 2008

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Better Ways to Work #1: The Skunk Works

In the run up to World War II, Lockheed engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson and his colleagues needed a way to work faster and smarter than was possible within Lockheed proper. Their solution was to set up an elite, secretive team in a walled-off section of Lockheed's Burbank plant. Often based on nothing more than a handshake, Johnson's team went to work developing some of the most important breakthroughs in military aviation history. One early project was 1944's P-80 Shooting Star, the first U.S. Air Force jet fighter. According to legend (and Wikipedia), they named the unit the Skunk Works — after the "Skonk Works" in the "Li'l Abner" comic strip — because it was located near a foul-smelling plastics factory. Lockheed's Skunk Works logo appears at the left.

I first heard about Kelly Johnson and the Skunk Works from my husband, a veteran and devoted militaria buff. (He would make a great technical adviser if Hollywood decides to make any more movies about WW II or Vietnam.) Some years later I realized I was working in a Skunk Works. My department, which was responsible for the company's business development efforts, had to work faster and smarter than was possible through normal agency channels. Gradually and organically, we grew into a creative, self-sufficient team that just happened to work behind closed doors in a remote corner of the building. Was it expensive? Yes. But the amount of new business we helped generate was many times greater than our overhead.

Now I'm wondering whether a Skunk Works environment can be created virtually, perhaps through crowdsourcing. Something to investigate.

Corporations Are Learning Disabled

Spend sufficient time in a large corporation and you are likely to discover that your employer is a slow learner. The larger the company, the more severe the problem.

CEOs generally attribute the glacial pace of change to the size of their enterprise; for example, the CEO of my former employer compared moving the company in a new direction to turning an aircraft carrier.

While I'm sure size does slow things down, the more fundamental problem may be the corporate system itself. Rare is the company that encourages new ideas to trickle up. More often, with success, the nimble enterprise created by hard-working founders with big ideas becomes a doltish behemoth a generation of two down the road. Almost inevitably, the top jobs end up in the hands of cautious men and women who spend their days holding meetings, signing papers and saying yes or no to other people's proposals. Imagine Apple in the hands of Louis Gerstner or Jeffrey Immelt. Those who rise through the ranks in this environment are those who most closely resemble the current executives. New thinking is stifled. As self-satisfaction rises, leadership slides and innovation slows to a crawl.

Surely there's a better way, probably multiple better ways. Any ideas?