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How To Avoid Creeping Obsolescence

As the business world changes, managers need to keep growing

When you were hired, it was assumed that you were qualified for the job as it was then structured, but would you be a qualified candidate today? Most managers never think about that question.

Have you read the hottest book at airport newsstands? It’s Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal, written by a ghostwriter before Trump became president. Much can be gleaned about the leadership philosophy that Trump developed, good and bad, before he began to bellow “You’re fired!” on his TV show “The Apprentice.”

Suppose we take the same jargon and change it. How will you react when your supervisor barks, “You’re obsolete!”

The news may come as a shock, especially if you have been getting favorable reviews annually. Why am I obsolete? Who says so?

Creeping obsolescence may be the most critical problem facing executives today. It’s based on the fact that the skills required to lead a business are different from those needed to navigate rampant changes in technology and more.

Being successful in virtually any business means having the ability to influence others and direct their energy toward goals. The others may be fellow executives, lower-level managers, employees or board members. Having top-caliber managers for all of these people is the most vital factor in every private, public and nonprofit organization.

Even the best managers, though, can suffer from creeping obsolescence. I once encountered the Forty Plus Club, a New York group of highly placed executives who suggested that two-thirds of their members were stagnating. The fire had simply gone out. The basic problem, as in most businesses, was not a failure to recognize or admit obsolescence; it was recognizing it too late and not knowing what to do about it.

The managers in the Forty Plus Club could hear the footsteps of the accelerated generation: the new college grads with MBAs and the quantitative thinkers and the geeks who know what to do when the computer goes on the fritz. These “youngsters” are seeking center stage today, at the same time that changes are affecting four categories of every executive’s life: organizational environment; staffing; technology; and personal challenges.

Consider each of them briefly to determine whether creeping obsolescence should be among your concerns.

Under organizational environment changes, look at board and stockholder profit expectations and the increased emphasis on short-term corporate returns. These things make most executives less comfortable — even before special-interest groups insist that companies pay attention to their concerns too, regarding everything from eco-friendliness to sexual orientation. Can you feel the pressure? What other changes are you experiencing?

Staffing has changed along with employment law. Human resources departments (no longer called personnel or employee relations departments) have expanded to address the equal-pay and equal-treatment needs of women, people of color and more. And with those changes have come more legal professionals to defend employees’ rights. In turn, employee attitudes have shifted toward personal growth, as opposed to company loyalty. Have you ever conducted an employee-attitude survey? Be prepared for a shocking set of data and conclusions to digest.

Technological changes may be the most obvious, with studies suggesting they are the main reason that workers become obsolete. You may remember seeing round DuMont TV screens as a child. Look at what has developed since then, and try to imagine what’s coming next. What does your management team fail to understand about the latest advances? Are you conversant in silicon chips and artificial intelligence? Do you have specialists to help in these areas?

When you were hired, it was assumed that you were qualified for the job as it was then structured, but would you be a qualified candidate today? Most managers never think about that question. They’re not like hairstylists, lawyers, accountants, physicians, computer specialists and automotive technicians who take annual or semiannual continuing education courses. Maybe they should be.

Human traits, too, allow us to overlook creeping obsolescence. Complacency is common; we find, perhaps suddenly, that we need to get up-to-date on processes, and we say we will do so next month or next year, and it never happens. And, of course, we cannot control having another birthday every year, with all the physical and mental changes that come with it.

If you have been in your current position a long time without reaching out to learn something new, then here are five steps to consider for 2018, to combat creeping obsolescence:

Assess the breadth of your knowledge. An executive must be knowledgeable on a broad front. What is your weakest area in business and decision making? If you were trained as an engineer, perhaps your weakness is motivation or accounting. If you were trained as a production manager, you may need accounting or computer skills. A one-week refresher course might be enough. An executive coach may help you find other options. Fellow executives can offer constructive ideas: Form your own Forty Plus Club.

Organize biweekly or monthly professional updates. Executives and senior managers can share their areas of responsibility and the ways that they see new ideas creeping in. Each listener can ask the day’s presenter to point out how new ideas can help the organization, and what senior managers must understand outside their own specialty area.

Seek out a local college of business. What suggestions does the dean have for rejuvenating your business skills and helping to rekindle the fire? Maybe other people in the dean’s social circles would like to form a meeting group.

Tap into a new area of interest. What specialty did you always wish you had chosen? It is not too late. Re-energizing your brain cells is the key. Look for local courses that might help.

Consider a learning vacation. Golfing and fishing are great, but a Rhodes Scholar program is a wonderful way to meet people of a similar age and expand your mind through learning and thoughtful conversation.

Jerald F. Robinson photo

Jerald F. Robinson

Jerald F. Robinson, Ph.D., is professor emeritus, international management, at the Pamplin College of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He can be reached at (540) 449-5870 or by e-mail:

This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue.



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