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The Making of a Modern Elder: A Q&A with Chip Conley

Success in today's workplace requires both emotional intelligence and tech savvy, which is why older and younger workers need each other so much.

A man in a gray shirt smiling in a field.

​Success in today’s workplace requires both emotional intelligence and tech savvy, which is why older and younger workers need each other so much.

For Chip Conley, work just keeps getting better with age. That’s notable when you consider he’s 50-something in a business world where young people are rapidly assuming top leadership roles. 

In 2013, after selling the boutique hotel company he founded, Conley felt lost. That’s when Brian Chesky, the ambitious young founder of a then-tiny startup called Airbnb, came calling. Conley swiftly became part of a company packed with 20-somethings. He was acutely aware of the age gap and his lack of digital skills, but he also came to realize the value of the wisdom he acquired during his years in the hospitality business. Thus began his journey as a “modern elder,” a term he coined and a role he discusses in his new book Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder (Currency, 2018).

Conley will share the lessons he has learned as part of the “change-makers” series of speakers at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 Annual Conference & Exposition, to be held June 23-26 in Las Vegas.

What is a modern elder?

Someone who can advise and support young CEOs and managers who could benefit from the insights, emotional intelligence and leadership skills of those who have been around longer. Modern elders didn’t enter the workplace with the same digital skills that have helped many young people advance so quickly in their organizations. So they not only dispense wisdom, but they also seek it, meaning they are students as much as they are sages.

What can Millennials learn from Baby Boomers and vice versa?

The implicit exchange that can occur is DQ (digital intelligence) for EQ (emotional intelligence). Many young people are digital natives who really understand how the technology ecosystem works. They can reverse-mentor Boomers and Gen Xers around the digital intelligence that companies want today. At the same time, older workers can provide emotional intelligence, which involves so-called soft skills like how to listen, show empathy and cooperate with others. Unlike IQ, EQ can grow over time and with experience.

At Airbnb, I helped teams solve the problems that arose when people weren’t collaborating well. For example, I showed them how to form an alliance with someone you’re at odds with and to create the psychological space that people need to do their best work. I think the “DQ for EQ” transfer is the future.

What advice do you have for people who may feel daunted by the technology skills needed today?

Try not to hide what you don’t know. I’m not saying you should flaunt it, but don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. That just puts a lot of energy in the wrong place. Instead, adopt a growth mindset. Be willing to improve. That process begins by saying, “I’m here to learn.” If you start with a beginner’s mind, you’ll learn faster. 

What can young HR professionals do to better manage older employees?

Tap into their wisdom and recognize their value. Older workers can sometimes have a bit of a confidence crisis, which might show up as defensiveness or bitterness. Support them so they feel appreciated, and then encourage them to get to that growth mindset. Otherwise, work is only going to get worse for them. The key is to help them realize that being curious and open to learning is to their own benefit.

Is experience making a comeback in the workplace?

I think so. The world is increasingly focused on digital intelligence—something many young employees have in spades—but effective leadership often involves the kind of trial and error that can take decades to master. That’s where workers of all ages can learn from each other. With five generations in the workplace for the first time ever, we have a real opportunity to collaborate and transfer wisdom like never before.  

Interview by Katie Wattendorf, a former editorial intern at SHRM.


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