Essential as the role of technology is in nearly any pursuit, including advancing one’s career, what’s equally essential is to recognize the limitations of technology. Young people, especially, would be well served by developing an appreciation for when to go old school.
That’s the argument being championed by Jim Whiddon, an executive coach and author of “The Old School Advantage: Timeless Tools for Every Generation.” I recently spoke with Whiddon about his old-school approach, and I opened the conversation by asking him how technology might be handicapping young people’s social and professional skills. He said the biggest problem is that the “tyranny of the rectangles” has created a distracted generation:
It started with TV when they were young, and of course now it’s gone to smartphones and tablets. Research has shown that once your attention is diverted, on average it takes about eight minutes to get back to concentrating on what you were doing previously. So getting a text every eight minutes essentially allows you to do no substantive work at all. I don’t care how you slice it, that’s an issue. It’s the overuse — or abuse — of technology that is preventing this generation from thinking deeply. As this generation goes into leadership positions, not having thought deeply about much, it’s a whole new dynamic. But what’s interesting is that those young people who rise above the status quo, when it comes to technology use, are going to be able to write their own ticket.
A huge part of all this, Whiddon said, is communication skills:
If they have communication skills, they can go anywhere, and do anything. My son recently got a job, his first entry-level career move. After the interview process was over and they offered him the job, they told him why he got their attention. They said, “In the first interview, you never used the word ‘like.’” Of course, he had to carry the ball from there — that’s obviously not what got him the job. But the point is, that got their attention, because it’s so unusual for a young person to go into an interview, and not say ‘”like” at least every other sentence, if not every other word. These little things give clues as to who people are — what their values are, and what their dedication might be. Especially for leaders, the key is to scrub your vocabulary of words such as, “like,” “so,” “awesome” — words that are so overused. It makes you stand out.
Once your vocabulary is scrubbed, there are old-school words and phrases that can really have an impact. An example is something as simple as, “first things first.” That phrase tells a person that you’re organized, you’re a sequential thinker, you’re not going to get ahead of yourself, you’re going to go through things methodically, so you don’t miss anything. All of those ideas are incorporated in the simple phrase, “first things first.”
I raised the topic of the lack of civility that characterizes so much online communication and interaction, and I asked Whiddon for his thoughts on how that scourge can be overcome. He said a root problem is the anonymity that typically characterizes online conversations:
People will say things when they don’t have to put their name to it that they otherwise would never say. I think what’s needed is to teach this generation how to argue in the classical sense, without being argumentative — that’s an old-school concept. It’s stating a position and supporting it, without going into ad hominem attacks or sniping. Taking the old-school approach of rising above that and taking the high road, while you may seemingly lose some battles, you’re almost always going to win the war. Having a genuine, authentic, open attitude enables you to go much further in life than those who decide they want to take a dogmatic stand on whatever topic they’re trying to defend.
Whiddon is an advocate of the power of storytelling, so I brought up my recent interview with Inhi Cho Suh, an 18-year veteran of IBM who’s now a senior executive of the company in the area of collaboration. I had asked her if she could have one do-over since she joined IBM, what it would be. She said, “One thing that I learned later in my career that I wish I had learned earlier is the power of storytelling. …It’s amazing how much insight you can share in just five or 10 minutes. So that’s definitely a skill set that I would love to have honed earlier.” I asked Whiddon for his thoughts on that, and how young people can hone that skill. His response:
At the corporate level, what we teach is to build a “story vault.” That vault, hopefully, has dozens of stories that are germane to that company’s mission, or to some facet of the business, whether it’s customer service, or sales, or executive management. Those stories need to be built into the corporate environment, and they need to be institutionalized, meaning that everybody from the receptionist to the corner office in the penthouse knows these stories. And you start simply by telling the stories. Storytelling is a skill that’s acquired through practice — anybody can tell a good story, but it takes practice. There’s no magic to it — it’s just doing it.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.