How to Prevent Personal Obsolescence

Here are three simple actions you can take to help prevent your own “personal obsolescence.”  Warning: Personal obsolescence in a leader / manager can manifest itself in organizational underperformance, less than optimal personal compensation, and even unemployment. 

EMBRACE YOUR INDUSTRY & MARKET:  More than 2,500 years ago the great Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu (544 BC to 496 BC) wisely observed: “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.”

To modify this ancient axiom a little, “You need not fear a hundred salary reviews, decisions, or market / industry changes, if you know the industry and the market.”  Having worked a dozen years for a large conglomerate before founding my own companies, I witnessed a common mistake by new division executives who often believed they didn’t need to put in the considerable extra time required to learn the industry, market, and or even their products. This mistake was most often rooted in the erroneous belief that their highly developed “soft” skills would win the day for them.  

Soft skills, which include people skills, are important.  However, it is the preponderance of a combination of “hard” with “soft” skills that will make your organization and you successful. If you don’t take the time & effort to learn them, your subordinates, peers, and superiors are very likely to believe you are not really committed to them and the organization.  This can very quickly lead to you becoming a “short timer.”

Join and be active in organizations like WEMCO, AWS, CGA, and others.  Learn your company’s product lines, customers, markets, competitors, and the industry.  Don’t kid yourself that your  people (soft) skills will compensate for you not knowing everything important from A-Z that impacts your industry. They won’t!  Failure to master the total picture makes it likely you will join many executives and high level managers with lots of “soft” but few “hard” skills. This opens the door to being frequently “under-employed” and all too often “un-employed.”

EMBRACE TECHNOLOGICAL CHANGE:  Be the first to try new technology.  Don’t be afraid of it. Learning new technology will help you maintain and increase your own personal productivity. Be sure to share what you learn. It will help you keep those working with you happy, empowered, and confident in their abilities to produce and be competitive at a high level.

Another risk of not embracing new technology is that it makes further learning difficult. It’s sort of like not learning your elementary school arithmetic skills well, which then makes it more difficult to learn algebra in high school, which then makes learning advanced mathematics almost impossible.  Technology moves so quickly you have to make a real effort to keep up with it as it becomes available and not be left behind. Consider, for example, that your home thermostat, especially if it is a Nest model, has many times the capabilities of early computers like the UNIVAC models.  Embedded systems (computers) are virtually everywhere: in your garage door opener, stove, washing machines, dryers, and hundreds in your car.  And think of all the empowering ( to you) computer power just in your smart phone.  Keeping up with all the advances in technology increases your ability to manage data and makes you far more productive and competitive.

EMBRACE CONTINUING EDUCATION:  Regularly and routinely each year take a week or several weeks of courses at top business or technical graduate schools.  Find the finest technical college or university you can afford because they are where you will find information on the latest cutting edge business practices or technological breakthroughs that apply to your industry.   Learning about them will enable you to compete at the highest levels and prevent your own personal obsolescence.

Remember the great fictional character and protagonist, Willy Loman, from Arthur Miller’s classic play, Death of a Salesman.  “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.  And when they start not smiling back—that’s an earthquake.”  A “smile and a shoeshine” wasn’t enough way back then and it’s certainly not close to being enough today.

Posted by Erin Clark in General

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