Avoiding The Career Obsolescence Trap

Horse drawn carriage

Four years ago, I had a conversation about career obsolescence I’ll never forget.

I was catching up with a friend and former colleague who had left her job at an advertising agency around 2008 to be a stay-at-home mom. This woman is the best account director I’ve ever known. She is tough, comfortable defending her position against criticism, yet also a generous listener. Projects on her watch never were late, over budget, off-target or off-message.

Simply put, she felt like an extension of my team.

When I asked what she wanted to do next, this A-team player shocked me with an admission of her fear that in the span of just a few years, she had become “a dinosaur” (her words). She felt left behind in a marketing world that had undergone enormous upheaval in the time she had been away.

Her candor broke my heart. I can’t imagine an agency or client partnership she could not improve, and yet she sensed her skills had become obsolete.

I also understand her anxiety. The marketing profession has changed. The tools we use, the channels we activate, the existence of marketing automation, software and advertising technology that did not exist a decade ago, the industry’s vocabulary, and the arrival of Millennials in the workforce all have disrupted agencies and their clients.

The threat of career obsolescence is real for many. Those most at risk are what I’ll broadly call craftsmen. Those who make things must learn the latest tools and techniques of their trade. For example, developers have to learn new coding languages to keep pace with changes in software and hardware. An auto mechanic would be smart to learn how to repair and maintain electric and hybrid cars. Those breaking into marketing today should know how to operate one or more components of the marketing stack.

At some point, though, the most skilled among us have an opportunity to become managers of people and professional relationships. When that happens, as any manager will admit, the demands on their time and talent change dramatically. What made them successful in the past won’t make the successful as managers.

Managers help their reports solve problems. They break down internal barriers. They defend their people from criticism and attack from colleagues and clients. They establish a vision and bring their teams along to embrace that vision.

As this happens, they can’t spend as much time staying current on the latest techniques that they would have had to master as individual contributors. Instead, they need to be aware of those changes to know when their teams and projects will need to acquire new skills.

For managers, the key to avoiding obsolescence is not mastering the latest techniques required of the people in their charge. Instead, they must develop a point of view about these trends that demonstrates thoughtfulness and an ability to recognize their potential to solve business problems or take advantage of new opportunities.

If Don Draper from AMC’s Mad Men walked into my office to interview for a job, he’d probably struggle if he tried to sell me on the merits of a campaign that advertised mostly on Time Magazine and 60 Minutes. On the other hand, if he could tell me what he thought about multi-channel marketing and attribution, the risks and rewards of programmatic, and a full-funnel approach that embraces today’s most productive tactics, he’d show me the adaptability and awareness today’s marketing leaders must possess.

In 1-3 months, my friend could learn everything she needs to know about the latest marketing trends and challenges from websites, blogs, newsletters, conferences and leading edge companies that put all sorts of information on their websites to attract new business. In no time, she’d be fluent enough to confidently explain a contemporary worldview in an interview.

If you’re a marketing manager, take that coding or UX class if it piques your personal interest, but not if you expect it to make you more valuable as a leader.

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