Brandt On Leadership -- Middle-Aged Managers Beware

June 15, 2005
Comb-overs and mini-skirts won't bring back your youth.

Seasoned executives have been thrown into a tizzy by a recent rash of stories about age 50-ish managers who have found themselves out of a job -- more or less permanently -- and out of step with the baby-faced employers who could rectify their situations. This is terrible news for two reasons: 1. Our nation and economy needs the wisdom and experience of these senior workers. 2. Many of us are now close enough to 50 ourselves to know that if the whippersnappers are doing it to the AARP crowd today, they'll be after our mid-40s behinds tomorrow.

In short, something has to be done. And, as usual, we're going to have to do it ourselves because all the self-centered little bastards we mentored won't return our calls anymore. As a public service, then, I offer this guide to the middle-aged manager:

Appearance: Catherine Deneuve once said that after 40 a woman must choose between her face and her derriere. Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that the best way to look younger is to work your ass off. Yet even competence and vigor go only so far. Some helpful hints for men:

  • When you grow those five hairs on the back of your head to three feet in length and then coil them like rope atop your gleaming pate, it does not look like a full head of hair. "Seaweed" comes to mind.
  • Sucking in your stomach as you button your pants in the morning is pointless if you spend the rest of the day with your belt buckle facing south and your pants around your hips.
  • Cologne is to be misted, not bathed in. When you apply it so liberally your colleagues can smell you five cubicles away, they wonder what decaying part of your body you're trying to cover up.

And for women:

  • Nobody really believed you were blonde when you were 25. (They were thinking about other things.) Now your co-workers look at your bleach job and whisper "She is so 1983."
  • The more eye shadow you use, the more you look like an aged raccoon.
  • If you're over 25, no miniskirts, tight-fitting pants or low-cut blouses. Don't make me explain this.

Resume: Your vast experience is valuable, relevant and utterly threatening to the 25-year-old empty suit in the chair across from you. Even worse is trying to hide it by omitting dates on your resume; you might as well take a giant black marker and write across the top: GEEZER. Play it straight and then, if you think the pencil-armed geek isn't going to hire you anyway, stand up and tip his desk over. Remember, too, to smile and chat with his assistant on your way out. It won't help you get the job, but it'll make the twerp think twice before he disses another experienced executive. Plus, his assistant -- who probably hates him already -- will wonder what he did to offend such a nice person.

Presentation: The challenge for those in the mid-century club is to speak so that you're not mistaken for the 4:30 dinner rush at Sizzler or some aging frat boy trying to hold onto his youth with a ponytail and a red convertible. Safe topics include sports, news and the project you're working on. Unsafe topics include reality TV shows (your interest will seem prurient), your prostate or menopausal symptoms and any reference to the "good old days." Why? Because even your contemporaries can't stand it when you say: "Back when I started with this company...."

After all, they can't afford to have anybody find out that they're as old as you are.

John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, is CEO of the Manufacturing Performance Institute, a research and consulting firm based in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

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