We frequently focus on the wrong things as we look for answers when we struggle in our careers, especially when we are in transition. We often turn our attention to the elements that we have little or no control over. It's without question the easiest way to deflect responsibility and accountability. We can become distracted by the noise, not the cause. In this case the noise can be simple demographics - gender, race, orientation, or many times we point to our age.
Age is just a Number.
It's important to note that before I move forward that I recognize that horrific and illegal employment practices exist. There are media/entertainment industries where "young, hot, and cheap" is a recruiting strategy and has been for decades. Many of us have felt like we are 'timed out' and have been cast aside for younger and cheaper talent. In many cases this could very well be true. Here's where the challenge comes into the conversation. If this practice has been prevalent for years, even decades. If we are being honest with ourselves, we might have been that young hot talent that back filled a role of an "early retiree". How much of a surprise is this? It's true that one person can make a difference and create change, but before you head off to turn the employment practices of a $160 Billion industry on it's head, make sure you have a strong stomach and time.
If you are in an industry (broadcast news, entertainment, technology, sports management, etc) that continues to churn talent and its common practice to replace experience with ambition, you must become a student. You'll need to be able to adapt your skill set in completely different ways and you are going to need time.
For example, you've been merchandising retail stores for a career. You understand both space and time. You merchandise for season, time of day, and location to meet the frequency of customer visit and to convert opportunity to revenue. I often coach talent to think about their social media strategy as merchandising a retail store. You want desirable content to show up in the right space on the right day at the right time. If you can figure out how to successfully merchandise housewares at a Target store via a sophisticated planogram software, why can't you merchandise a web site? So the question, if you are mid or late career, what have we been doing to prepare for the inevitable change?
Conversely, on the other end of the spectrum we frequently get young talent lamenting about being labeled a "Millennial" and that senior managers aren't giving them a chance. They cite examples of how they are unable to manage their own workload, hours, or the ability to work remotely. Look, these same constraints used to gnaw at me in 1988 when faced with the same issues. There is one element today that has completely changed the landscape from 30 years ago. Technology. It's been a game changer because it has flattened most industries
For example, three weeks ago I get a LinkedIn message from a very early career reporter who is obviously struggling. "Mike, will you look at my reel?" So on a busy Sunday afternoon I stop to take 15-20 minutes to look at the 7 minute reel. I offer some feedback on the reel as well as 2-3 other things I think could be important to getting that first big up market promotion. Not a 'thank you' or even acknowledgement. Clearly the young lady was offended that I didn't tell her what she wanted to hear. She wanted feedback not to use to adapt and adjust but for me to recognize what she thought she had accomplished.
The point of the above examples is that if you become a great student and develop skills through learning, modeling, practicing, repeating and then promoting, you will become timeless. You will understand the industry and market shifts and then adapt your strengths to align with trends and ever changing best practices in your craft or profession. Your age literally just becomes a number not part of your resume or a limitation in your career progression. When you are reluctant to acknowledge market change, become a student again and adapt or you neglect opportunities to learn and move up, you are letting your age and time in job define you.
I believe there are three keys to minimizing age as a selection criteria in your career:
Self-awareness is critical. You are going to need a realistic view of your capabilities and current position relative to the market. It will be critical to have a 'vision output' which is basically an clear understanding of where your want to end up. Once you can articulate what that is and you have a realistic picture of your starting point, you can start at the vision output and work backwards to where you are today, closing the gaps along the way. Additionally, it's super important to understand the things that you need to own about short comings in your previous experiences. What does your reinvention look like given your opportunities for improvement in the past. Maybe you didn't manage up well or failed at creating the right personal and professional boundaries with subordinates or peers. My simple question: "What part of your previous career/job challenges did YOU own and how would you change it?"
Opportunity presents itself when you manage time and financial means. Addressing the former, by never living beyond means, preferably below your means, you'll have much more flexibility to invest in reinvention. Couple reasons. First is the obvious. If you need to change industries and start at a lower paying position you'll have that flexibility and option to entertain that. Let's say you are a main news anchor making $200k all-in. You're also 48 years old and the station is number 3 of 3 and you see the writing on the wall. That $125k PR or Com job might be best avenue to transition. It might be the only avenue. The second, your reinvention might be borne out of a side hustle. Side hustle don't always pay off instantly. They may take months or years to develop. You want the ability to explore these passions and opportunities without creating hardship.
You can have exceptional self-awareness and have managed your time and money wisely and still fall short because you can't successfully tell your career story. My experience tells me that you can fail in two ways - structure and content/context. Putting together a career story structurally is simple and basically the same as an elevator pitch. Who are you, what have you done, and why it's applicable to what you want to do next. Being able to have compelling content closes the deal. Think about the merchandising a retail store vs a web site example above. Drawing strong connections backed with experience is key. Paint the picture or make a movie for the listener so they can make that connection. This starts with meeting them where they are and adjusting your communication style if necessary.
In summary, whether you've been in position for twenty two years or just twenty four months, age can play a role in either advancing or inhibiting your career growth, position and compensation. Self awareness, seeing opportunity, and being a storyteller by painting the picture or making the movie, will be the key elements to managing a timeless career.
Be Bold. Be Great. Be Timeless.
About Mike McNamara:
Mike has held C-Suite, Executive and Senior Sales, Marketing, Business Development, and General Management roles with Equifax, Cox Enterprises, WW Grainger, and Federal-Mogul Corporation. Mike has led sales, service and operations organizations of over 1,500 associates and accountable for P&L responsibility in excess of $250M.
Dedicated to giving back, Mike formed The MBAR Group in 2009 with the sole intent of providing pro bono career and business consulting services to the underprivileged and underserved. Today as founder and CEO of TalentBlvd, he coaches a number of high profile business and media personalities as well as holding advisory board positions guiding a number of multimedia and small business startups.
Mike earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University. He is a past chapter President of the American Marketing Association. Mike and family split time between their adopted state of Missouri and family home in NW Michigan where their philanthropic causes include The Kingdom House – St Louis, BACN in Benzonia, MI., and Samaritan’s Purse, Boone NC.