Bye Bye baby boomers

by 11 Dec 2007

Many businesses are not prepared for the loss of experienced workers that will occur over the next decade, as more than 1 million baby boomers retire. Sarah O Carroll recently attended a forum where a number of experts discussed this issue and the importance of wisdom in the workforce

Companies will have to adapt to the changing demographics of Australia’s workforce and deal with the huge loss of accumulated knowledge, expertise and wisdom that this group of workers will take with them, attendees at a recent forum were told.

Among the speakers at the forum, which was organised by SageCo and attended by HR directors from various industries, were Sandy Hollway, CEO of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games and Maree Faulkner, CEO of the Heart Foundation.

Both speakers discussed the wisdom they had acquired throughout their career, the biggest lessons they’ve learned and the importance of imparting wisdom to younger workers. They focused on key aspects of wisdom such as clarity, certainty, wisdom with age, and adversity.

As the older generation plan to retire, Faulkner spoke about the importance of recognising the time to leave, to move on and hand over to the next person. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘Yes, I’ve been here a while, I’ve done this all before, I know a lot but about it but that is not necessarily a good thing’. It’s important to devise a process of building the next person up, transferring your knowledge and skills and then moving yourself out of the position,” she said.

While knowledge and expertise is gained through years of experience, Hollway and Faulkner did not fully agree with the adage ‘wisdom comes with age’. “Staleness with confidence” are a dangerous combination, according to Hollway, and both speakers felt it is important to know when it is time to hand over to a younger person with a fresh perspective and try your best to impart your knowledge to them.

“It’s not much to do with age and indeed in some areas of wisdom it’s absolutely ludicrous to think that the old are wiser,” said Hollway.

Faulkner recounted an experience of working with a young 30-year-old HR professional on a difficult task. The wisdom she showed at her age proved to Faulkner that it’s not necessarily relative to age.

The importance of clarity is something that both Hollway and Faulkner learned over the years. Faulkner spoke about an experience in her career when, only through providing information and clarity to workers could issues and discontent be resolved. Even through difficult times, one of the keys to success is to be open and honest. Hollway agreed: “Even if they don’t like it, at least they are clear on where they are going. It’s incredibly important for HR people and advising leaders in organisations to be open and honest when going through change,” he said.

On the other hand, when it comes to making decisions and leading Hollway said you can’t have complete certainty all of the time and sometimes the best decisions are made when you have the least knowledge. This is very important for young people who are stepping up into new roles. “The thing about certainty is you don’t want to be caught like the rabbit in a spotlight, unwilling to move until there’s complete certainty. Anybody who has done a project understands that you’ve got to move when you’re 80 per cent certain,” he said.

Hollway used chess as a metaphor to emphasise this. “It’s like playing a game of chess. Even the greatest grandmaster cannot know with certainty when they make a certain move on the chess board, all the consequences that will flow from that. You can’t know. Instead, what you are judging is that if I make that move rather than this one, I am more likely to open up beneficial opportunities than the other move,” he said.

Hollway said that sometimes projects have to run on momentum. If you wait until you have complete certainty, sometimes you’ll be waiting so long that the problems will accumulate. “Once the old hoop is running down the hill you can give it the occasional flick to keep it going. But if you let it start to wobble, you’re in the ditch,” he said.

The importance of listening to everyone, regardless of age and status, was something else that came through in the discussion. Both speakers felt that they have learned and gained wisdom from people above, on the same level and below them.

“It’s a conscious act of discipline to listen to what somebody is saying. You have to listen to what people are saying, not who is saying it, or how they are saying it. I find I learn from people who are above me, on the same level and below me,” said Hollway.

Also attending the circle were Katriina Tahka, head of workforce management in AMP, Steve Rowe, HR director for Pfizer, Helen Lyons, HR director for the University of Western Sydney, Lea Baker, manager of health and safety for AMP, and Jeanette Wenborn, HR strategy partner for the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.


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