Too big to fail

Mired in past paradigms, big companies are missing upcoming opportunities

Image: K8 - Unsplash

I can attest to those stories about “too big to fail” companies that are so mired in what was and what worked in the past that they totally miss the opportunity that is coming down the pike…it’s already here. My all-time favorite women business writer, Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, described and categorized these same behemoths in her 1990 book, When Giants Learn to Dance. I was still considered a “new breed” intrapreneur in the financial services industry when I first read Kanter’s book in which she disrobes the dysfunctional nature of financial services in particular. Kanter’s astute commentary still applies to all forms of enterprises: business entities and institutions, especially when it comes to the lack of foresight and the next-to-nil fleet-footed adaptation skills required to best serve 5 generations in the workplace, most especially this 40+ women demographic. Most enterprises today are still mired in outmoded ways of doing business (e.g., applying dated product-driven and transaction-centered approaches vs. providing a customer-centric, age-friendly relational approach, which is spot-on for this demographic).

The Hudson Institute, a prestigious think tank in Washington, D.C., described future prospects and significant workforce changes in both of its highly respected comprehensive reports; Workforce 2000 and Workforce 2020. Sounding the call-to-action! A key takeaway from both reports was that this unprecedented “PrimeTime” demographic shift would soon rear its head in the world. It already has and is! We are right smack in the throes of this demographic forcefield. This disruptive force is a game changer no matter how it first emerges in your workforce and on your workplace radar. Some telltale signs are already showing up: your firm’s dwindling number of Boomer knowledge workers, gaps in workforce skills, or the stagnation of many of your current pre-retirees who are choosing not to make waves. It may be seen in the increasing number of women leaving after working their tails off for years only to be treated as invisible after 40, or beyond their expiry date after 50. However, this shift manifests, a shake-up is under way. Are you prepared or asleep at the helm?

When Baby Boomers Say Sayonara

Don’t minimize a sudden exodus of Baby Boomers by thinking this mass departure will solely impact consumer products. Instead, consider its impact on every field and industry, as all will be affected. I was in total shock a few years ago when I heard from top scientists and management leadership futurist colleagues of mine in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (aka NASA) that the majority of the agency’s scientists, astronauts, and leadership are over age 50. After years of passionate dedication to the mission of NASA, due to cutbacks imposed on them, these professionals have been deflated and demoralized. In response, most are taking early retirement (or at least considering it), saying that they are done, “over and out,” because they were too old for such shenanigans. This mass departure will come with it a great loss to NASA and the world given that their hard-earned knowledge goes right out the door with them.

An article in woke me up by highlighting another sector implosion caused by departing Boomer knowledge workers, which is about to happen across all industries with an in-house IT organization or dedicated contracted IT department. Are you counting on Boomers to put off retiring and stick around? Counting on Baby Boomers to “hang in there” is bad planning when it comes to your IT workforce development and succession initiatives. Just ponder this for a moment. Think what would happen if all the Boomers on your team decide to leave at the same time. Wouldn’t it be better to limit your exposure to brain drain directly caused by your knowledge workers retiring or changing employers?

It’s important to raise the veils of denial around the conflicting stories we are told about our aging workforce and the places in which we work. A shocking, but important, denial eradicator is a study by KPMG based in the Netherlands (it is one of the largest professional service companies in the world and one of the Big Four auditors), wherein executives and HR directors were surveyed about their attitudes regarding managing older staff. When asked if there is a “silent tipping point” at which employees are “perceived to be less valuable or attractive to the organization,” two-thirds of HR chiefs said there was an “over-the-hill tipping point.” Almost one-half of HR directors said this tipping point occurs at 50 years old and more than one-third said at age 60. So, there it is. Over the Hill is universally age 50! However, without a doubt, Baby Boomers at the helm of companies, government, and institutions across all sectors, are pushing the benchmark further along the age continuum. Whatever the moving target age is today for a pink slip, the silver ceiling is hovering over all our heads. Leading-Edge Gen Xers are moving closer and closer to the current expiry date. Does this mean Over the Hill will move to age 60 by the time Gen Xers head into their sixties?

Women in droves are bypassing not only the glass ceiling, but now the silvered glass ceiling as well. Our impact doesn’t stop in the workplace. Instead we are making change happen faster and faster…like a fast-engulfing wildfire—right into retail dressing rooms, online shopping, cosmetic counters, who and what we watch on the silver screen, and most of all, in all our coffers and spreadsheets! Yet, giant corporations, like elephants, don’t know how to dance. In fact, most of these giants, as well as the “little guys,” are leaving trillions on the table, as they turn a blind eye to what’s going to rock their boat…maybe even sink it.

Times They Are a-Changing

A new story is emerging, written by those marketers and product makers who recognize that it is worthwhile to get beyond the rampant malevolent ageism in corporate marketing and product development decision making. (Ditto for People & Culture policy-making!) Findings in a Nielsen study project that by 2024 “…close to 50% of the U.S. adult population will be 50 & older, and they will control 70% of the country’s disposable-income. What’s more, they stand to inherit $15 trillion in the next 20 years.” Baby Boomers will control the bulk of 70 percent of the country’s disposable income.

No surprise that only the nimblest entrepreneurs and avant-garde among us are taking the lead in ageless policy-making and decision-making. It’s up to all of us game changers and visionaries on the front lines to nourish and elevate “whole people”/”whole organization” driven enterprise models and profitmaking approaches. We, together, are the ones who must blaze new trails to create ageless, diverse and inclusive, win-win-win partnerships and collaborations across generations to fully contribute to the Triple Bottomline.

Those at the helm of big elephant behemoths will pay the price of sticking solely with old irrelevant myths of “youth rules”, “women can’t win.” Clearly, they still haven’t learned to dance, decades after Kanter’s call to action. It’s time for us to learn to dance!

[Excerpted with permission from Gray is the New Green (2016, 2018) by Karen Sands.

[Source: Karen Sands, MCC, BCC,]