In 2013, Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky called serial entrepreneur Chip Conley with an unusual request: Would he join their company as a strategic advisor on the hospitality industry?

What made the offer noteworthy is Conley, then 53, was a generation older than Airbnb's twentysomething founders and, by his own admission, "clueless" about tech disruption and the sharing economy. Conley is founder of Joie de Vivre hotels--the second largest operator of boutique hotels in the U.S.--as well as author of several must-read leadership books, including The Rebel Rules, Wisdom at Work, and Peak.

What turned this offer into a business inspiration was how it evolved: What Airbnb valued most wasn't Conley's subject matter expertise but his wisdom. "I agreed to give Brian 15 hours a week as his leadership mentor. That quickly turned into 15-hour days," Conley tells me. 

Inspired by his Airbnb experience, Conley launched an educational institute called Modern Elder Academy (MEA), essentially a wisdom school for midlife. At Airbnb, Conley was nicknamed the "Modern Elder," and he wants to return the word to its original connotations of wisdom and perspective.

MEA is born of technology's disparate impact on the young and the old. Tech disruption is putting more digitally native young entrepreneurs at the heads of companies. The result is often a mismatch between technological prowess and leadership ability.

"The business world is full of brilliant young people with great ideas about disrupting the status quo," Conley says. But, he adds, "We expect them to miraculously embody leadership skills and emotional intelligence that actually take decades to develop."

At the same time, the older workers being sidelined actually have those qualities in abundance and are looking for ways to put their skills to work. In fact, when I attended an MEA course last month, hosted at Conley's Pacific oceanfront compound in Mexico, most attendees were entrepreneurs and C-suite executives in their 50s and 60s, looking for guidance in their next big act.

As a coach to many young startups, I took away some important insights from that course for young entrepreneurs, as well as aspiring "modern elders."

Build a leadership team with mixed age groups.

"Older people and younger people have a different cognitive approach," Conley says. "A team of young people will tend to solve problems quickly and make a lot of mistakes. An older team may take longer but will make fewer mistakes. If you put them together, you get the best of both worlds." What I've observed from my own practice is older workers tend to create more "psychological safety" on a team, essential to creativity and morale.

Older workers are much more engaged than you might think.

Contrary to popular perception, workers 55 and older are actually more engaged than their younger colleagues, according to surveys from both AARP and Gallup. A study by leadership research firm Zenger l Folkman also found older workers are more confident and, therefore, more open to feedback and more interested in self-improvement.

Older mentors bring countless benefits to young CEOs.

The young founders I coach are typically brilliant, charismatic visionaries and often wise beyond their years. However, they don't have the leadership skills yet to be world-class CEOs. Having older executives on the team ensures they have role models to develop those skills faster. Mature middle managers add value as well, especially considering young CEOs often have young employees, who are still learning the interpersonal skills needed to collaborate and manage conflict--and that can lead to costly turnover. 

Meanwhile, an MIT study found older managers tend to be less selfish than younger ones--one reason, the study suspected, that their employees stay longer.

If you are nearing the end of one career, ignore the ageist narrative that you no longer have anything of value to offer, and instead consider this:

You have more time than you think.

The great management thinker Peter Drucker did most of his best work after the age of 65. And just last year, Impossible Foods, founded by 65-year-old scientist Pat Brown, was named Inc.'s company of the year. Expect to see more success stories like Brown. Because of increasing life expectancies, at age 60 you are likely only 57 percent of the way through your adult life. You have plenty of time to launch your second act.

Your biggest obstacle is in your mind.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck categorized people's attitudes to personal development into either fixed and growth mindsets. If you reach middle age with a fixed mindset, you believe your talents are inherent and don't change, so new challenges seem overwhelming. But if you adopt a growth mindset, those challenges become new opportunities to learn because you believe you can improve throughout your life.

If Conley is right, there will be plenty of opportunity for mature workers with a growth mindset. In 1966, Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker," but Conley argues that term has served its purpose.

"In a world that's increasingly given over to artificial intelligence, we don't need knowledge workers," Conley says. "We are going to be swamped with knowledge. What's more and more scarce is wisdom. It's time to start to value wisdom as much as we do disruption." 

Published on: Feb 21, 2020
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