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Nov 28, 2013

On one side of the campfire sat “Newbie” — a 20-something who was ripe with energy. On the other side of the fire sat “Senior” — a 60-something who was stacked with wisdom.

It wasn’t often a new guy was invited to our annual canoe trip in Canada. Most of the group had been making the grueling trip into the middle of the wilderness for at least a decade.

So, on the first night of our trip, Senior was sharing some of the rules of the island — like how our food bag was hung by a rope, on a tree branch, every night, so that a hungry bear wouldn’t steal it while we slept.

Can you outrun the bear?

Newbie listened intently to his elder speak. But it was obvious this conversation — to a cocky young man who grew up in the city — was also making the freshman camper anxious.

“It’s not a big deal,” said Senior, noticing the young man was rattled. “If a bear comes into the campsite, just make as much noise as possible. But if the bear doesn’t run away from the noise, you better start running.”

Obviously shaken by the thought of a bear chasing him around the island, but too proud to admit it, Newbie responded, “But I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you.”

Senior grinned at the young man’s remarks. “True,” he said. “And that’s exactly why I hid black licorice in your tent and all your pockets. You might not be able to smell it, but that bear will. Bears love black licorice.”

Not only did this story provide a few great laughs, as we all watched Newbie secretly check his pockets for hidden licorice, but this story also makes a great point in the workplace — where the largest generation in history (Baby Boomers) is facing retirement.

What wisdom should we learn from senior members of the workforce before they leave?

1. What have you learned about work?

The senior members at your company may not be able to truly comprehend new technologies. They may no longer have the energy to function at the speed of a younger workforce.

However, they are the best advisors on the bigger aspects of the job — commitment, stamina, purpose, accountability, and perspective.

Find a senior member in your company. Ask them what they wish they would have known. Ask them what they wish they wouldn’t have done. Ask them to share their wisdom — a quality that can only come from experience.

2. What have you learned about people?

There’s a reason we call our workplaces ‘The Company.” It means we’re working with, and in the company of, other people.

Senior members of the workforce have learned something (both good and bad) about people the rest of could benefit from hearing.

Ask senior members of the workforce about the people who have impacted their careers the most and why. Ask them about the perspectives they’ve gained throughout the years on bosses, coworkers, and subordinates. You may not even agree with the advice they give, but it’s important to understand the way they think, and act, and treat people derives from their experience.

At this point in their career, they’re no longer guessing. They’re relating to people the way they’ve found works the best.

3. What advice can you give about change?

There will come a day when there is a new Newbie — someone who can outrun all of us. But that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically outperform us.

Senior members of your team have experience no junior team member can fully understand — constant change and how to deal with it.

Ask for advice about change. Ask them about the changes they never saw coming. Ask them about the changes they saw coming but chose not accept and why.

Mining wisdom before it’s gone

There’s a world of wisdom showing up to the workplace daily. Soon, they’ll be sitting on a beach somewhere and reflecting on everything they’ve learned throughout an entire career.

And, if the rest of us are smart enough to ask for their advice instead of assuming we’re OK because today we can run faster, then we won’t be finding pieces of licorice in our pockets.

On a side note: the rest of that first night at the campfire, Newbie remained pretty quiet. In fact, all of us were as we had witnessed a display of wisdom.

Well, all of us were pretty quiet except Senior. He did have the last word. “ROAR!”

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

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