Professional Obsolescence — Hiring & Training in a Dynamic Uncertain World
I am 52 (circa 2019). I wrote this essay for myself and a company I co-founded (Wealth Advisors Trust Company). This essay encapsulates one part of our succession process and company culture.
Admitting to your eventual professional obsolescence breeds innovation and calmness. Ignoring this fact leads to internal and external chaos. At some point. The good news — we have the freedom to choose between these two paths. The bad news — we have to choose the timing and the degree of implementation. How do we hire and train ourselves, business partners, employees on our collective, natural and eventual professional obsolescence? It starts with orienting our mindset from where we began and where we want to end up.
One of my sons is a high school senior (circa 2019). His graduating class and others like it — locally, nationally and globally — face a world with a different set of professional rules and systems than my world at 18 (circa 1987). Adults reading this post know of the differences — machine learning, artificial intelligence, globalization, quantum computing, demographic imbalances, wealth disparity etc. It is not worse or better just different. My son does not value how life worked in the past because his focus lies on the present and future. Just like we all forget how hard babies are in the first couple of years and yet we keep having more — humans can stay focused on the present and future. However, my son’s future and how his generation participates and potentially lead organizations will demand a consistent approach to learning. This characteristic has always been required however he will be competing against software and machines who are always learning and adapting. The human race pushes the envelope. Our collective decisions to completely adopt modern day technology around everything we do has unintended good and bad consequences. All of us, including my high school senior son, that naturally appreciate the power of consciously admitting to our eventual professional obsolescence provides more benefits than drawbacks.
In the past, professional careers could generally be separated into a type of decade characterization. I recognize that exceptions to the following professional timeline always exist but use this schema as a baseline:
Decade from ages 10–20: Spitting out what you are being taught in school, learning what you can and cannot do and potentially separating truths from falsehoods.
Decade from ages 20–30: Learning how to grow up because excuses do not work anymore, accepting that not knowing everything is Okay and that your decisions made during this decade will have lifelong consequences.
Decade from ages 30–40: Learning your craft and making more mistakes.
Decade from ages 40–50: Honing in on your craft and what you are.
Decade from ages 50–60: Making the most money and reflection on your past, present and future.
Decade from ages 60–70: More reflection. More money. Or a forced end.
Decade from ages 70 plus: Bonus time.
This static decade characterization of our professional life no longer holds true. Over the last two decades our professional lives have been rapidly evolving with globalization, demographic changes and technology advancements. For all of us working today — in the public or private sectors —we need to remain or learn to become curious, creative and adaptive. We have a choice of whether our professional obsolescence arrives upon our timeline or forces itself upon us. Either way it is going to happen. We are lucky enough to choose how and when. And that’s Okay because we have the power of free will to avoid the downsides of a static mindset.
Static environments no longer exist. Actually, they never really did but today the rate of change makes this a double true fact. Leaders in any organization and/or the participants in that organization need to admit that they exist in a duality state of stable and adaptive environments. For example, a school teacher exists in a stable environment (e.g. we all need to go to school) but the style of teaching and the goals of teaching exists in an adaptive environment. Another example, financial advice will always be needed (static environment) but the delivery, cost and experience of that financial advice will evolve around demographic changes and technology advancements. Imagine how this affects a technology or pharmaceutical company. The same issue exists within how governments are managed and operated as well as any private company. As with nature, the king of the jungle does not remain king forever. Nature and biology gives us great insight how to turn professional obsolescence into a strength. As an aside, I have no experience in public institutions of any kind. My comments and thoughts will only focus on private companies in their hiring and training in an dynamic uncertain world.
In 2015, two Yale University researchers, Matthew Fisher and Frank Keil, released a study called, “The Curse of Expertise” raising an interesting question for leaders. At what point will a leaders knowledge become outdated, antiquated or just plain dangerous to the organization itself? I asked that question of myself, my business partners, and our current and future employees (note: a big thanks for this inspiration from Renee Descartes for “I think therefore I am” ). To answer my own question I considered a few thought experiments and settled on one. How does anyone calculate the distance between two points if only the starting point is known. I knew my starting point — my first job at May Department Stores as a financial analyst but I could not calculate my exact ending point. However, I decided that the characterization of my end point would begin when I am professionally obsolete. Gulp! How do I decide my own professionally obsolescence? How does anyone? My guesstimate answer, and please leave comments if you have a better concept/answer — when I am no longer interested in learning. That means I have the freedom to choose my path of professional obsolescence. Therefore, leaders need to hire and to train employees that accept the fact that everyone, including themselves, eventually becomes professionally obsolete.
If you are running an international firm such as Apple, Inc. or a small company like Wealth Advisors Trust Company the concept about how to hire and to train remains the same. The three basic elements any employee and/or leader needs to embrace (apart from critical character components of empathy, morality and work ethic/grit) are: (1) curiosity; (2) creativity; and (3) adaptability. However, the implementation for Apple becomes infinitely more complicated than for Wealth Advisors Trust Company around these three basic elements.
Leaders in any company face a few other dilemmas: (1) not every employee wants to keep learning; (2) not every position exists in a dual stable and adaptive environment at the exact same moment; and (3) how to identify themselves and employees reasons for working. The last point can be narrowed down to 3 core elements: (1) status (think of a politician for the purest form); (2) function (think of a professor for the purest form); and (3) money (think of a salesman for the purest form). This makes a very large assumption that each person working can earn a living wage however that is defined. Leaders need to really understand how they and all employees fall under various forms of the 3 core elements described above. This allow companies to hire and to train well in our dynamic world
Leaders must accept that learning and teaching set the tone for the future well being of ANY company. It is a culture thing not a marketing tagline. Leaders and employees admitting to their professional obsolescence accelerate the well being of clients, and the company itself. That takes a very large dose of self-confidence and a strong pinch of hyper-realism which all we all profess to exhibit. If you think about it though — actually admitting to our professional obsolescence solves two problems: (1) it keeps you grounded that working is not everything; and (2) your legacy will be greater (e.g. Steve Jobs influence at Apple). A leader and/or employee are nothing more than a simple cell in nature replicating itself and sharing its DNA code. In this YouTube link from the movie Lucy, watch from minute 1:57 to 3:04 to see how simple the answer of transferring knowledge should always be — https://youtu.be/nELxnSK1SHk.
Conclusions to hire/train in a dynamic uncertain world AND to provide for a natural succession process
a) When we admit to our eventual and natural professional obsolescence we can hire and train employees better. Frankly that makes life more fun. But not always easy.
b) Globalization, technology, and demographics will demand we embrace a flexible approach to our work career with consciously balancing our personal lives.
c) Companies and/or industries no longer exist in stable environments but in a duality of stable and adaptive environments.
d) Our professional obsolescence begins when we no longer have the interest to keep learning. And that’s okay and natural.
e) We must all openly embed within ourselves the characteristics of curiosity, creativity and adaptability to lead happier lives in our dynamic world.
f) Leaders need to understand the motivations of their employees between status, function and money.