I was re-reading a business book that was published in 1991. It had success stories of companies that had installed new management techniques. (The author, of course, was an expert on those techniques.) Many of those companies no longer exist. Not because of following the writer’s recommendations – those are actually pretty good even today. But because of the earth-shattering changes that have swept U.S. and the world- of industry.
You – our model worker- just recently celebrated your fifty –second birthday. You were part of a wave of baby –boomer women who swept into colleges and universities in the seventies and eighties and graduated in 1984. Or perhaps it is you – the man who completed military service at that same time. You entered the work force in 1984.
Think about just how much things have changed since then. Tools you learned to use only to discard and replace them with something newer and better. When you started working, PCs and Macs were just becoming deployed in the workplace on a widespread basis. You learned WordPerfect, Lotus 123 and Harvard Graphics to take advantage of the new computer power on your desk. You needed to, because, as famed Professor Lester Thurow explained, Japanese companies were crushing U.S. companies and your future earnings and advancement were being diminished as a result. Mr. Thurow certainly had my attention. Despite noteworthy skills and an industrious workforce, the Japanese didn’t destroy us economically after all. (Thurow it turns out underestimated the microprocessor).
You learned Management by Objectives, and maybe had to employ Zero-based Budgeting, at least for a while.
Peters and Waterman ushered in the age of big-selling business books with The Search for Excellence, which you studied carefully. If your employer was on the cutting edge, and had learned to fear and covet Japanese productivity, it trained you on Just-in-Time manufacturing, quality circles and quality control (QC) methods.
By the late eighties, some of your more successful friends were getting phones installed in their cars, but the equipment took up a big space in their car trunk, and they complained about the size of their monthly bills. Others purchased suitcase-sized portable computers from firms like Kaypro and Compaq. Prices for fast PCs fell to around $2,000.
You learned all new productivity programs as Microsoft swept Lotus, WordPerfect and Harvard Graphics right off the playing field. But that was OK; you’re competitive and you aren’t going to be left behind. Mobile phone prices dropped to the point that you were willing to buy one, and purchased a Nokia candy-bar shaped phone. It could hold twenty numbers in memory! Making calls was as easy as using your home phone, but there were lots of places where you couldn’t get on a network. You learned to watch for a network signal, because “roaming” charges were budget-busters. You had mastered expense control.
You learned all the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People . Actually, you practice most of them to this day.
Your boss’s boss’s boss read Michael Hammer’s Reengineering the Corporation, and suddenly your work life was chaos. Your employer had to reengineer everything. Some of the changes actually worked, as cheap computer power was harnessed to do work differently and more effectively. But you watched as it spread throughout corporate America, and reengineering just became a code word for layoffs. Far too often it wasn’t doing work more effectively at all. To this day you can spot a process that is a mess and size it up with a glance and determine if it is a candidate for process improvement or the more complex reengineering effort.
You realized that you needed to learn more about the “Internet” and ended up opening an AOL account. It wasn’t too clear what you could do with it, but the little ping and “You’ve got mail” became addictive-at least at first. Your shelf of business books grew with William Ouchi’s Theory Z as your company decided that if it couldn’t manage culture, it could at least influence it. With every new version of Windows and Office you acquired – and really used - Windows for Dummies, not to mention the documentation that came with each PC you purchased. You missed investing in Netscape, but you definitely noticed it, and sensed something different was indeed happening. You bought a Palm Pilot and learned its little characters. However, you kept losing or breaking the stylus and you quietly questioned whether it wasn’t just better and faster to write in a journal.
Your employer concluded that it must be number one or number two in every market it served. You concluded that defining a market was far more art than science, and that a surprising number of companies convinced themselves that they were finishing first or second in some market.
Suddenly things seemed to move faster, and the requirement to both be in the office more and be available for email and calls in your “off” hours increased. Consultants started saying that your employer needed to move at Internet speed or be left behind forever. On the personal side, you noticed that the once-wimpy young auditors that showed up in your office were suddenly not wimpy at all, but clearly pumping iron in the gym. And the lowly programmers suddenly commanded premium wages – even older ones – actually particularly the older ones who knew Fortran and Assembler and Cobol as rumors of software problems associated with Y2K circulated.
A few of your friends quit their jobs and became daytraders. Not too long thereafter they bought Mercedes and Rolexes. Later they learned about pawn shops and crushing reality of lease payments when the Internet bubble burst. You saw the value of your carefully built 401(k) drop by 40% and your planned retirement date recede into the future.
You’ve changed jobs, and your employers have changed owners, and you survived and even thrived as you worked with software from Sage and Lawson and Oracle and Great Plains and SAP and SAS. Not to mention specialized applications in your field.
“Blackberries” started sprouting on the belt of every successful person you knew. Checking email continuously became de rigueur. You are now a master of the taps, clicks and swipes necessary to exploit the super-computer in your pocket.
More recently you’ve been introduced to Workday, Wordpress and Salesforce.
You’ve been downsized and laid-off and outsourced, but have survived them all.
You watched as your employer struggled with old advertising and promotion approaches while upstarts took customers away using Google Ad Words, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. In response, you learned something about SEO and SEM. Seth Godin taught you Permission Marketing while Charlene Li was informing you about all things social in Groundswell and Jonah Berger explained how to make ideas Contagious.
You’ve seen a lot. You’ve learned a lot. You can take a punch and get up. You’ve learned a lot about human nature. You’ve reported to mature folks, and to a kid that probably didn’t need to shave. You don’t panic. You can do stuff, and a lot of it.
Yes, there are kids who can surf the net faster, and think they can multi-task (although new science shows that they make a lot of mistakes and do a third rate job when they do). But you also learned the 10,000 hour rule, and those hours are in your rear view mirror.
When the NY Knicks needed a new basketball executive, they turned to 68 year old Phil Jackson. Warren Buffet, at 87, is still considered the greatest investor of all time. Sixty-six year old Hillary Rodham Clinton is poised to run for the President of the United States. If she does, she’ll be 68 when the election comes up. When people want something done, and done well, they look for someone with deep experience.
That’s you isn’t it?