You’re how old?! Sshhhh…!!!

It’s attitude and character of a person that define cultural fit and leadership capabilities, and NOT the date stamped on their birth certificate!  

Oh to be that age?  You may be thinking, “what age is she referring to” …. Truth be told, I wish I knew the answer to that very question, myself!

Conscious or unconscious, ageism is the most common bias in the workplace today, and is especially true for leadership roles!  Interestingly, let’s look at the key attributes of a good leader:

  • Integrity
  • Courage
  • Vision
  • Judgment
  • Passion
  • Empathy
  • Emotional Intelligence

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t seem to find an “expiry date” on any of these attributes?  I also don’t know of a boilerplate “start-date” where these qualities kick-in either.   Yet, many of us find ourselves creatively engineering our resumes and talent profiles in order to “mask” our age and mitigate against prevailing age-biases that may exist.

“Some people say they have 20 years, when in reality they have 1 years experience repeated 20 times” – Stephen Covey (to Richie Norton when Norton asked if he was too young to train older executives for Covey)

For me, like so many others, I took on the role of a leader well before my first job as a “manager” …. I was a teacher assistant for the kindergarten classes when I was a youngster in elementary school, school-bus monitor and Red-Cross trained babysitter in my neighbourhood.

Although leadership came naturally for me since childhood, I still needed to “prove my worth” and fight off ageism biases at the workplace.  I can’t tell you how often I heard the phrase “you have plenty of runway in your career” whenever I was considered (and passed over) for roles.  In fact, believe it or not, a colleague once suggested that I “gray my hair” and wear glasses at the office, so that clients (and colleagues) would be more comfortable with me in a management role!  Yep …. in this day and age, where everyone wants to look younger and younger, I was advised to age my appearance so that I could overcome biases – conscious and unconscious!

ageism traffic light

With the blink of an eye, I have now gone from having huge runway (green lights ahead) to entering into the “tail-end” of my career (amber lights).  Have all those leadership attributes, hard work ethic, drive and creative thinking skills that I possessed not that long ago now expired?!  Nope, not at all … If anything, I’m at my prime, growing as a leader and learning new things every single day!  Yet, I find myself needing to omit dates on my resume and avoid references highlighting my 20+ years of experience …. Again, to battle biases and give myself a chance to demonstrate my capabilities rather than simply be dismissed because of my age!

Yes, I realize that ageism biases often come into play not because skills/capabilities are in question, but instead it’s a question of cultural (workplace) fit.  At the end of the day, it’s the TEAM that drives success, so most organizations “hire for fit, and train for skills“!   

I am going to digress for a moment and tell you a dance-story ….

Just over two years ago, I signed up for Ballroom and Latin dance lessons.  What surprised me was the diversity of students at the studio(s).  For those not familiar with Ballroom and Latin dancing – it’s not an “old persons” hobby!  There was a large number of students in their 20s and 30s (early in their professional lives), quite a few in their 40s and 50s (prime of their careers), and another fair-sized group aged 60 and over.  And while the diverse range of ages may have surprised me, what AMAZED me was that everyone at the studio is “blind to age” …. On any given day, you’ll see 30 year olds dancing with the 50 year olds, and the 40-somethings sharing a story with the 60+ and 20 year olds.  Everyone at the studio is united by a common passion and purpose: dance!  

Moreover, not only do we spend time together at the dance studio, but we’ve formed genuine friendships.  We’ve organized social events (on and off the dance-floor), hosted dinners, taken road-trips and vacations together, and supported each other in our various professional roles.

While most of you reading this may not be students of ballroom and latin dancing, I am sure you’re involved in book-clubs, meet-up groups and other hobbies where you interact with others of all ages, and relish in that “diversity of thought” with everyone coming away richer from having participated regardless of their age!

Why is it possible for individuals across generations to collaborate for a common purpose and passion on the dance-floor and outside the office, yet we face ageism in the workplace?!   It’s attitude and character of a person that define cultural fit, and not the date stamped on their birth certificate!  Bias busted! 

We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” – Anais Nin

Finally, diversity of thought is more important today than ever.  In this digital-age, where customer experience and ease-of-use trumps loyalty, it’s very important that businesses understand the needs and expectations of their customers.   As a female in my 40s, I shouldn’t be hiding my age to potential employers/clients, but rather the opposite.  Consider this … over the next decade, women (notably those 50 and over) will control two-thirds of consumer wealth and be beneficiaries of the largest transference of wealth in the history of America (with similar statistics in Canada).   Yet this same demographic – the very customer segment that most businesses will be battling for – are often cast aside by executives and recruiters on the notion of “lack of organizational fit”!   As Gord Nixon, former CEO of RBC, often said “diversity and inclusion is not just the right thing to do for an organization, but it’s more importantly the SMART thing to do for the organization’s success”!

Whether it exists as a conscious bias or unconscious bias, ageism is very real in the workplace.  We can’t “wish it away” or pretend it’s not there, but instead must face it head on!  And while I may be in that underdog position by virtue of my age …. I’m definitely still in the game!

“Life may not be the party we hoped for …. but while we’re here, we may as well dance” – Jeanne C. Stein

Care to join me for a cha-cha… ?  I will see you on the dance floor!  🙂