High There! – High-rise over 40!

woman trapezeThe education industry offers us literally millions of options for expanding the depth and breadth of our brainpower, from womb to tomb. Yet, there’s an assumption within some industries and organizations that when someone has reached the age of 50 and beyond, they are no longer in the classification that talent management gurus call “high potentials.” The term “high potential” refers to individuals an organization should devote the majority of its efforts to mentor, sponsor and retain.  Harvard Business Review, among others, has published numerous articles on the topic of high potentials, a recent one in 2010[1], excerpted here:

“…High potentials consistently and significantly outperform their peer groups in a variety of settings and circumstances. While achieving these superior levels of performance, they exhibit behaviors that reflect their companies’ culture and values in an exemplary manner. Moreover, they show a strong capacity to grow and succeed throughout their careers within an organization—more quickly and effectively than their peer groups do.”

In some firms, it is often presumed – mistakenly – that these behaviors are most attributable to younger, presumably more energetic, employees. When I was a young, aggressive, frenetic manager I worked to my full capacity to be fiercely competitive, running a robust portfolio of business for large ad agencies yet was always on the lookout for more revenue, and was fairly well-compensated (almost) for my skills. But I was not as loyal to “companies’ culture” as the definition above would suggest. And now when I think back to all of the things I did not know when I was younger I want to laugh out loud.

The fact of the matter is that I was well into my forties when I learned the most valuable lessons of my personal and professional life. Among these is how to be a good leader of people, beyond knowing how to manage a P&L. Becoming a leader, one of my favorite business-school professors confirmed when I decided to pursue my MBA in my mid-50s, is not something that can be taught. It must be learned through experience.

brain partsScientists ranging from prenatal experts to gerontologists assert there are nine different types of intelligence. And throughout our lives we don’t need to compartmentalize ourselves into just one of them! Just because you reach a certain age and become known for your math (or juggling) skills, it doesn’t mean you can’t suddenly discover an amazing talent for painting (arts, or another form of the nine kinds of intelligence) that you never knew you had.  So, just because you’re reached “high performer” in one skill doesn’t mean you’re DONE reaching your high potential as a human relative to some other skill.

That someone over 40 may not be considered a high-potential is unfair, yes, but it is often the perception. If this is the perception you have of yourself, there’s no excuse for that! 

Here’s just a short list of ideas, articles and books that should change your mind, literally and figuratively, about how much there still is to learn and develop your own high potential:

book pen notepad1) The New York Times: OPINION: “Fast Time and the Aging Mind,” by Richard A. Friedman, July 20. 2013.  Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psycho-pharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College. posits: “Is it possible that learning new things might slow our internal sense of time?” My favorite passage is this:

“…It’s simple: if you want time to slow down, become a student again. Learn something that requires sustained effort; do something novel. Put down the thriller when you’re sitting on the beach and break out a book on evolutionary theory or Spanish for beginners or a how-to book on something you’ve always wanted to do. Take a new route to work; vacation at an unknown spot. And take your sweet time about it.”[2]

2) The New York Times: PREOCCUPATIONS: “She Turned Her Upspeak Down a Notch, by Jessica Grose, July 27, 2013.  As the Times call out summarized it: “A freelance journalist was tired of sources thinking that she sounded like a little girl on the phone. So she set out to change her voice.”[3]  Think an “uptick” is the bailiwick of the young? Think again! I hear so many women over the age of 40 using an “uptick” in their speaking style that it reminds me not so much of the so-called “valley girls” that supposedly started the trend but of an antiquated time of deference and asking permission that smacks of pre-Mad Men secretarial pools.

3) The “Gravitas Guru,” Raleigh Mayer: One of my favorite executive coaches in New York is a woman named Raleigh Mayer,  who rightly calls herself “The Gravitas Guru.” She rightly puts enthusiastic women of all ages through paces to break out of habits that include poor grooming, ill-fitting shoes and speaking as if every sentence is a question. And, she does it with total aplomb and the utmost courtesy, even as she gets everyone to laugh at themselves.

time keeping watch4) From The New York Times: APP SMART: “To Manage Time, Track Time and Pass the Time, by Kit Eaton, June 26, 2013. As the Times call out summarized it: “When they aren’t listening to music or playing a game on their devices, people who work from home can stay on task with a range of productivity apps.” [4]  As a career-long time tracker and “billable hour” monitor, I long ago developed the habit of tracking my time for productivity and also as a planning tool before I even sit down to work. Most experienced adults know how important this is, perhaps even better than our younger colleagues do.

5) From The New York Times: BUCKS BLOG: “Helping Older Americans Avoid Swindles,” by Ann Carrns. As Ms. Carrns in the Times call out summarizes: “A new educational tool from the F.D.I.C., called “Money Smart for Older Americans,” aims to help people protect themselves against financial abuses.”[5] 

Finally: Even when – and especially if – there seems to be more of an alarming trend against hiring older workers, don’t rule out the capacity to expand your own high potential through various productive and constructive means that don’t have to cost a fortune.  

If you’re still unconvinced, lift your spirits (and your potential) by reading the cover story in the July 8-15, 2013 issue of TIME Magazine, entitled: “The Pursuit of Happiness.”  That will help you get on the high road to developing your potential. It’s likely there’s a long stretch of highway and miles to go before you sleep.

highway white line






[1] Ready, Douglas A., Conger, Jay A., Hill, Linda A., (2010, June) Are You a High Potential? Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from http://hbr.org/2010/06/are-you-a-high-potential/ar/1

[2] Friedman, Richard A., (2013, July 20) Fast Time and the Aging Mind. The New York Times: Opinion. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/13UmKa2.

[3] Grosse, Jessica, (2013, July 27) She Turned Her Upspeak Down a Notch, The New York Times: Preoccupations. Retrieved from http://nyti.ms/13cNCQ9.

[4] Eaton, Kit, (2013, June 26), To Manage Time, Track Time and Pass the Time, The New York Times: App Smart. Retrieved from http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/e/kit_eaton/index.html

[5] Carrns, Ann, (2013, June 13), Helping Older Americans Avoid Swindles, The New York Times, Buck’s Blog. Retrieved from. http://nyti.ms/18CtGdj.

Lesson Plans: What All Women Over 40 Should Know, and Why We All Should Always Be Learning

“I am learning all the time.  The tombstone will be my diploma.”
– Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008

Having just enjoyed another birthday, I am still amazed at how much I still have to learn – despite my many beneficial experiences and expertise – that I feel I should have learned at a much younger age.   Most women over 40 feel this way, I know.

          Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Because of my experiences, and continued passion for adding to my expertise, I also have a passion for mentoring, teaching and counseling others – especially college students – so they develop a zeal for a lifetime of learning.  Of course, none of us learns the same way, nor do we want to learn for the same reasons.   For example, I learned about leadership by becoming extremely open to learning from all sorts of people in some very uncomfortable situations.  I now look at those learning situations as essential to my professional and spiritual development, much like new physical exercises are essential to my health as I get older.

The sad stories about celebrity cooking stars Paula Deen and Nigella Lawson are evidence that all of us should always be learning. 
It seems the only thing these two dynamic women have in common is nurturing others through their cooking.  That was before recent events in their personal lives made them fodder for tabloid headlines and constant speculation about their careers going forward.   

As a marketer, college educator and consultant specializing in leaders over 40, I am commenting in a respectful way about the Deen and Lawson situations.  In fact, three very important lessons about life, business and professional responsibility I learned at a very young age from my Italian parents.  They are pertinent to anyone who’s interested in the mission of “always be learning.”

#1:  Be respectful to everyone, even when you think others aren’t watching, because it’s the right thing to do and because there’s always someone watching.  Women (and men!) over 40  in presumed leadership positions often make the gravest mistakes in exhibiting rude behavior towards individuals they think are “beneath” them.   Not only is this unprofessional and unbecoming in a leader, it can be deleterious to your career in general.  The very individuals to whom you might have been insensitive could in turn complain behind your back to your most important client, or to your boss, or to a prospective employer.  Even if no one turns your story into a version of Nanny Diaries or Devil Wears Prada, what mature executive can afford bad references!   

#2:  Be wary of making derisive comments – ever – about religion, sexual orientation, and ethnic background.  What might seem innocuous, or so-called conventional wisdom, or “playing along to get along” in a group not only hurts others, but could hurt you most when you least expect it, for instance, at what should be the zenith of your career.  Enter – and exit (at least for the time being) – Paula Deen.  Fair or unfair, who could have imagined that a woman who was perceived to be so sweet, cheery, positive and fun would be in this kind of predicament at this point in her life?

piggy bank#3:  Earn, invest in and have easy access to your own “Forget You!” assets.  I was nine when my very wise father advised me that romantic partners, business associates, bosses, friends and others on whom I might depend or trust for financial support were, in fact, not to be depended on or trusted as my primary means of financial support.   Even after 31 years of fulfilling marriage to a devoted and exceedingly decent man, I haven’t forgotten my father’s advice.    

Nigella Lawson may not have as many assets as her husband, Charles Saatchi – the ad legend, art enthusiast and rumored throat-throttler – but she does have enough “Forget You” money.  Stories, with photos of her moving out of their home with her children in tow, report that she’s “mortified” by all the publicity.  I can’t help but recall the vignettes at the end of many early Nigella Bites episodes that showed her in a revealing nightgown blissfully tip-toeing out of bed in the middle of the night to chomp lustily on a lamb chop or slurp down an éclair, perhaps following an equally lusty romantic encounter with hubby.  Now it’s almost as if Lawson is being punished for being the sultry, lusty, gorging Nigella “brand” Saatchi wanted in the first place!    

Paula Deen’s alleged racist comments and condoning of a hostile sexist environment are also a very sad coda indeed. Especially in light of her early struggles as a single mother raising young sons, battling agoraphobia and subsequently cooking up her multi-million dollar enterprise from scratch.  Now she’s another fallen celebrity, vilified and excoriated by past actions. 

Since I’ve spent my entire career marketing corporate brands and services, I don’t purport to be a novice let alone an apologist for anyone’s insensitive behavior or personal troubles.  Even when it concerns notable women over 40 who I respect, but especially when it concerns celebrities who earn millions of dollars – as brands!   

Be that as it may, few normal folk have to manage their lives under the constant scrutiny of the public eye.  As a marketer, I know from experience that the hardest brands to manage and market are those associated with celebrity spokespersons.  When the person is the brand, it’s nearly impossible to predict what might happen to the brand’s equity when the brand exhibits evidence of being a living, learning human being.  

As Deen, Lawson, and countless other women over 40 have realized, our lives are full of lesson plans.  Whether they’re proactive plans, to optimize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses in good times, or they’re reactive, to mitigate crises and help us take advantage of opportunities, is governed by our willingness to always be learning.   

For my own coda, I hope I’m as lucky as Eartha Kitt – learning all the time, until the very last diploma.