Don't be the dinosaur: Ten rules for the older professional

Understanding and dealing with an ever changing marketing and media environment is challenging. All About Brands’ Michael Willard gives his top tips on how to remain at the top of the marketing game

I woke up one morning, and I was suddenly a 60-year-old in PR. Life is sort of like that Porsche I had long ago that roared from zero to 60-plus in no time flat. The senior years sneak up on us.

However, financial commitments don’t disappear at this yellow leaf threshold, a time depicted in gauzy magazine photos with a smiling grandfather bouncing a grandchild on his knee. The mortgage still comes due every month. I still have to suit up in my rusty armor each morning and go out and joust with very smart youngsters half my age. In the 21st Century, failure is not an option for those of us who have responsibilities stacked like layers on a chocolate cake.

With an eight-year old in the house, my first view of retirement will come, barring surprises, somewhere in the year 2022. My situation, though, is one of choice and is actually fairly common, regardless of profession. Lives are more complicated today than they were a few decades back. We live longer. The divorce rate in most countries is about 50 percent, and the number of second families is consistent with this statistic.

Also, for me, retirement has never been a goal. It is for people who have worked for governments all their lives, or those who landed a position with a giant company, spent 30 years there, and were put out to pasture at the age of 65 or later. I simply did not, and don’t, aspire to retire. Not long ago, I was asked by a public relations professor at Elon University in North Carolina to outline my ten rules for coping professionally when younger PR pros might think I have lost a step or two. Though not in any particular order, and certainly not inclusive, I offer my thoughts:

1. Differentiate the mature brand

Think of yourself as a brand - a mature brand - and then differentiate yourself according to the talents and experiences you have gained over the years. Play to your strengths, whether they be media training, crisis training and management, client relations, or another aspect of our business. And remember, so long as you are a little entrepreneurial, your talents probably work equally well outside a big organization.

2. Broaden your horizon

In other words, step outside your comfort zone. Venture into an aspect of our business that might surprise the younger professional, such as becoming better acquainted with the digital world and digital communications. Spend a few moments with MTV and learn what “you’ve been punk’d” means. In other words, don’t let anyone brand you a dinosaur.

3. Be a risk taker

Great ideas generally carry risk. Be an idea person and accept that risk is part and parcel of the potential success that might come your way. Think in terms of the game, however, and acknowledge to yourself that even the great Ronaldo has an occasional off day on the pitch.

4. Avoid ‘war story’ syndrome

Everyone likes hearing stories, but repeated references to how it was done in the “good old days” is tiresome and rarely relevant in today’s 24-hour news cycle. Make sure that your story is specific to a current problem.

5. Keep up appearances

Billionaire investor Warren Buffet could wear a beanie and still get respect. The famous Wyoming lawyer, Gerry Spence, can wear buckskins - and he does - and carries it off! Most of us in the mature stage of our careers probably have not reached that point. Superstar status has eluded us. Hence, dress as a professional.

6. There are always options

When a career problem does arise (and I can think of at least three life-defining situations in my own journey), remember that there are an amazing number of options available. Live to fight another day. In other words, don’t panic at the first professional ill wind. Relax. Take a deep breath, and review those options.

7. Don’t retreat - charge!

A career path is not that much different from charting a successful war or a political campaign. When inevitable adversity does come your way - and perhaps when others are retreating – charge! My company grew during an economic crisis. A personal job dilemma at an international PR company found me the following year leading my own company.

8. Live a portfolio life

Keep adding to your portfolio of talents by becoming knowledgeable about areas that really interest you. If you like public speaking, for example, find platforms to demonstrate and improve. I took up oil painting when I was 50, and have held several exhibitions where paintings have sold. However, I get better use out of them by presenting them as birthday presents to clients and friends.

9. Be nice

It is amazing how far you can go in your career merely because your clients, your co-workers and your friends think of you as a pretty good guy, not manipulative, but genuinely caring. We all hear about the S.O.B. who clawed his way to the top. There are many more executives who became Fortune 500 CEOs because they are talented - and treat people with respect.

10. Don’t be late for life

In my view, this rule trumps all other suggestions on this list. It has more to do with a philosophy than a success tactic. It comes from a George Elliott quotation: “It’s never too late to be who you might have been.” In other words, don’t be late for life.

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