Teaching a New Dog Old Tricks

by John Hunter

One size doesn’t fit all

I have a dog. I also have a wife, parents and children, not to mention a career with clients, employees, colleagues I’m responsible for, peers, and of course colleagues responsible for me. I suspect you may have something similar and in combination we have spent significant portions of our lives encouraging, cajoling, enforcing and enabling changes, large and small, which impact all their lives. The one thing they have in common is me, other than that there is little that links these separate components of my life to one another. I certainly don’t use the same approach with my dog that I do with my clients. Indeed, while Monty, (my dog), might respond well to discussing his self-actualisation issues I rather suspect my Clients would be less encouraged by the opportunity of a nice long walk and a bowl of dry dog food.

Just as one size doesn’t fit all for me and my network so clearly one size will never fit all when it comes to larger human groupings. This self-evident truth, runs headlong into the very human need to generalise and categorise. When it comes to the remaining dark corners of acceptable prejudice we are still bathed in a sea of awkward messages around age groups and their ‘natural’ competencies or tendencies.

Millennials, for example, we are told are feckless, lazy, self-absorbed, and in general make poor corporate citizens. On a more positive note we are to assume they are naturally ‘digital natives’ adaptive and entrepreneurial.

Baby boomers and some early generation X should be regarded as default techno-phobes, poor adaptors, authoritarian and to coin a very Gen-x phrase ‘job’s-worth’s’. Their purported strengths lie in customer engagement skills and in particular practical problem solving.

Upskill or procure new skills?

I was in a discussion during 2017 with a person who fervently believed that when she profiled training budgets for her organisation she did so on the basis that she would hire digital natives rather than re-skill her existing work force. Nobody under 25, she assured me, uses e-mail. The irony was that joining the organisation would surely mean that they would have to adopt the ‘old-fashioned’ use of email.

But is it true? We could list numerous examples of ‘relative’ tendencies and then a similar number of counter examples. There are teenagers who are less interested in tech and there are pensioners who are wedded to tablet and phone. Yet as we look at recruitment patterns and markets we are seeing Millennial targeting and BB/Gen-X targeting built upon these assumptions. In these days of the specially targeted recruitment campaigns these assumptions may be indirectly excluding significant groups of potential candidates. Are DIY stores, Garden Centres, Super-markets, heading in one direction while marketing, sales and design head in the other?

Diversity yields results

The problem is that we are closing the door on a number of important aspects here. Mono-culture businesses are directly counter to the now well recognised values of diversity. Whatever the ‘Mono’, be it race, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. it tends to lead to significant issues in the medium term. McKinsey reports* suggest that relatively homogenous organisations tend to perform poorly relative to industry averages. There is also a correlation that organisations in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity are 35% more likely to beat financial averages for the industry and 15% more so for gender diversity. While this is just a correlation and not corroboration it is none the less interesting.

It often appears that there is a universal truth about change in that those who are most interested in the change tend to achieve better results for themselves from it. Are HR professionals mistaking interest for ability and then inferring traits upon a wide range of people? Because you like a coffee and cake at a garden centre doesn’t necessarily mean you are a social media illiterate. Indeed last year I also met a young ‘millennial’ surf instructor in Cornwall who with a flick of his tousled hair a smile on his tanned face and more than a note of glee in his voice told me ‘I don’t do technology …. Dude.’ (I may have embellished the memory with the word ‘Dude’).

How much technical competence is required?

When it comes to the modern work environment there is no doubt that there is an increasing level of technology. Almost all roles will expect a level of competence in a handful of apps. Candidates who don’t know their Pivot-table from their Petunias are going to be at a disadvantage. The question is how much competence is needed and how to interest the workforce in obtaining and engaging with it. It should also be noted that an inability to communicate in the real world and an inability to problem solve practical solutions are very poor attributes to bring to an employment market. E.M Forster coined the term a ‘Round character’** which in this case means that the skills and capabilities best suited to a modern employee in the general context may well be a mixed bag rather than siloed deep dive specialisms, because these adapt best to change.

Engaging a multi-generational workforce

If you find yourself reviewing applications, planning your training budget, or indeed skills profiling roles it is worth considering the economic, cultural, and practical benefits of ensuring you have a diverse age profile in your organisation. Are you leaving unmined skills on the table? Have you enabled capabilities through training rather than turnover? If you’re not yet convinced, then consider this. Class actions on indirect age discrimination are taking place in the US against industries in the defence, medical and tech sectors, including a very large case against Google. Similar cases are beginning in Australia and across Europe. It seems then that the courts will be establishing the frameworks of acceptable practice rather than legislation. As HR professionals should we be asking ourselves what our position is with regard to accepting these age biased assumptions and how to get ahead of the game? Is there a real opportunity to teach some of our ‘old dogs new tricks’ but also leverage the existing portfolio of old tricks for our new dogs?

As for Monty he continues to feel Maslow† failed to address the true value of a nice long walk.

John Hunter

John is a strategic consultant and Business Transformation & Change specialist and HRCubed’s Head of Change Delivery.


* Diversity Matters (PDF–1,732KB), re-released in February 2015. McKinsey & Company Vivian Hunt director McKinsey London office, Dennis Layton principal London office; Sara Prince principal Atlanta office.
** Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. Mariner Books. (1956) ISBN 978-0156091800Maslow, A.H. (1943). "A theory of human motivation". Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–96. doi:10.1037/h0054346 – via psychclassics.yorku.ca