It’s no secret that U.S. employers tend to favor youth over age and experience, and nowhere is that more true than in the technology sector. Fast-growing tech companies typically hire young applicants because they want people with deep digital expertise. As a result, their average employee is often under 30; their founders and management are rarely much older.
And that, argues Chip Conley, a 56-year-old veteran entrepreneur who’s now strategic advisor on global hospitality and strategy for Airbnb, could be their Achilles’ Heel.
“In traditional societies, there was usually an ‘elder’ around to support younger leaders and pass on wisdom,” says Conley. “But today, as industry becomes more digital-focused, power is cascading faster to younger people and we just expect them to miraculously embody leadership — which is setting them up for failure.”
The Role of the Modern Elder
Conley thinks one way to prevent tech company stumbles would be to re-invent the concept of “elder” for today’s era — a role he has dubbed the “modern elder.”
The problem with the traditional elder role, Conley says, is that knowledge flows in one direction only, from the old to the young (think Yoda in Star Wars).
But the modern elder must be able to learn and evolve, so he or she can steer younger leaders to make better decisions. “You must be both mentor and intern, teacher and learner, sage and student,” Conley says.
This might be dismissed as loose talk except that Conley actually serves in a modern elder role himself at Airbnb, and can point to others who do, too.
A Call From the Airbnb CEO
Conley founded the boutique hospital chain Joie de Vivre Hospitality at 26 and sold it at 50. He was looking around for what to do next when he got a phone call from Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of Airbnb, in 2013, asking him to join the home-lodging company.
At the time, Airbnb was not yet a household name. But it was on its way to becoming a major challenger to the hotel industry, even though neither Chesky, then 31, nor his Millennial co-founders had any experience in the hospitality business.
Conley, on the other hand, had an almost exactly complementary set of skills.
“I was an ‘old-school’ hotel guy [but] had never used Airbnb,” he wrote in a recent essay for the Harvard Business Review. “I didn’t even have the Uber app on my phone. I was 52 years old, I’d never worked in a tech company, I didn’t code, I was twice the age of the average Airbnb employee, and, after running my own company for well over two decades, I’d be reporting to a smart guy 21 years my junior. I was a little intimidated. But I took the job.”
What This Modern Elder Didn’t Understand
Conley signed up as head of global hospitality and strategy, but quickly realized he knew almost nothing about Airbnb’s core function of mobile and web development.
“At a meeting on my first day, they were talking a language I just didn’t understand,” Conley recalls. “I realized that the only way this was going to work was if I stayed open to evolving who I was and my identity.”
Nowhere was this more important, Conley decided, than in his relations with Chesky.
“Brian had asked me to be partly his mentor, but at the same time I had to be his intern. So my job was to help him be as effective as he could be. But my name wasn’t going to be in the media — and that helped me right-size my ego,” he says.
Conley’s deep knowledge of the travel industry soon proved extremely useful to the company. He ramped up the comprehensive online training Airbnb now offers its 2 million “hosts” in 190 countries. He created the annual Airbnb Open meeting that brings hosts together. He helped the company improve its user reviews tracking host and guest behavior. And he organized a series of two-day retreats to teach company managers to become better leaders — held, of course, at Airbnb host homes.
Intern Publicly, Mentor Privately
But true to the modern elder model, Conley found that some of his most valuable work stayed invisible. As a modern elder, “your job is to intern publicly and mentor privately,” Conley likes to say.
So if he had advice for Chesky or other senior managers, he only offered it privately, one-to-one. Even then, the learning was reciprocal.
“The offer was more or less: ‘I’ll share some of my emotional intelligence for your digital intelligence,’” Conley explained at a recent Stanford Center on Longevity conference.
In Conley’s view, the modern elder role is one that any experienced manager might seek to create, either at one company — as he did at Airbnb, where he recently stepped down into an advisory role — or for private clients.
Recruiting Others for the Modern Elder Crusade
Conley’s modern elder crusade has brought him into contact with others pursuing the same goal, such as Luther Kitahata, Vice President of Engineering at TiVo.
Kitahata, 52, who has led engineering teams at several successful startups, decided a few years ago to broaden his skills by becoming an executive leadership coach. “Psychology and personal development have been passions of mine since I was a child, so this was something that had been building for 25 years or more,” Kitahata says.
Today, in addition to his engineering role, Kitahata also works as a leadership coach, often for technology executives and CEOs. Essentially, he has become a modern elder.
“The fact that I have walked in their shoes [as a Silicon Valley executive and entrepreneur] makes the coaching more effective,” Kitahata says. “And whereas in high tech, the older you get the more you are viewed as irrelevant, in coaching almost the opposite is true — the more experience you have, the more weight you pull. So this was a perfect transition for me.”
Giving the Word ‘Elder’ New Meaning
Conley has one reservation about the modern elder notion: its inevitable association with “elderly.” He notes: “Someone who is elderly is considered a resource drain, as opposed to someone who is giving back. So we need to reclaim the word ‘elder’ and give it a new meaning.”
To help make that happen, Conley plans several significant actions next year. First, he will publish a book in September 2018: [email protected]: The Making of a Modern Elder.
Conley also plans to launch a retreat center, called the “Modern Elder Gap Year Academy,” to help talented people rethink their skills in mid-career. The program, which will accommodate up to 25 guests at a time, will open in November 2018 at a beachfront complex Conley is building on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. It will offer training in modern elder skills, as well as supplemental instruction in personal technology, small business development, languages, mindfulness, yoga and other subjects.
Conley hopes the experience will be a bit like joining “a secret society and making connections, since you are learning these things in a beautiful setting with 24 other people who are going through a similar life experience.”
Once the book is out and the Academy is up and running, Conley hopes to persuade other companies to add modern elders to their strategic hires.
4 Ways to Become a Modern Elder
If you’d like to create a modern elder role for yourself, Conley has four suggestions:
- Be prepared to evolve
- Adopt a beginner’s mindset
- Become a better collaborator with others
- Be prepared to counsel those around you when you have wisdom that could help them perform better
“There are a lot of people walking around feeling like an old carton of milk with an expiration date stamped on their foreheads,” Conley says. “But their wisdom and experience makes them less like a carton of milk and more like a vintage wine — especially now, in the digital era.”
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