Blast From the Past

Everything becomes obsolete eventually. That's why looking back at the past can help you predict the future.

In 1969, I graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and was offered two jobs. I took the job paying $47,000 a year and turned down one paying $75,000 a year because it required me to join a labor union. I'm not against labor unions. I am against being obsolete due to obsolete ideas. As entrepreneurs, we need to stop looking at employees from an Industrial Age point of view. In the Industrial Age, employees were rewarded for things like seniority. In the Information Age, seniority is death via obsolescence. In the Industrial Age, a senior employee had more experience. In the Information Age, experience can be a liability.

So the challenges facing today's entrepreneurs are: How do you attract, retain and motivate technologically savvy, cutting-edge employees? How do you keep wages and benefits in line with shrinking profit margins? How do you inspire employees to develop new products or services? How do you keep good employees from moving to other companies?

I do it by working more collaboratively with younger employees. I ask them to challenge my ideas--as well as their own. For example, the other day I mentioned to a group of younger managers that e-mail was obsolete. They said I didn't know what I was talking about. One called me an "old man."

And what they said was true. The fact is, I don't know what I'm talking about. I'm so obsolete that I don't have an e-mail address. All I know is that e-mail will be obsolete, just as labor unions are obsolete and the idea of seniority is obsolete. I was challenging younger employees to predict their future by predicting their own obsolescence. By taking the conversation into the future, it brings two generations together: old guys like me and the young leaders of tomorrow. By forecasting the future, I can share my experiences as they share theirs. When they tell me about using Skype to make long distance phone calls, I see the future for Industrial Age phone companies.

One of the things I'm doing is hiring younger, more tech-savvy team members and putting them on a quasi-board to advise my company about the future. This doesn't mean I follow all their recommendations; it simply means that I need to listen to them and take appropriate action. I also listen with the intent of detecting core values and desires. On the flip side, I'm promoting older tech workers and asking them to be interpreters of the future.

Leadership is about vision. One way to see the future is to see today as the past. In the Information Age, nothing is more dangerous than a person who doesn't know his ideas are obsolete.

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