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History Lesson

Sunday, April 1, 2007 - 15:05

In documenting Australian executive culture, Professor Leonie Still has captured our corporate elders' achievements and values as a benchmark for future generations.

If the best intentions of historical recording are to objectively document human actions and beliefs, Professor Leonie Still's generational study of Australian male and female executives will be appreciated by social researchers in the future.

Corporate Elders, a book described by Still, former Director of The Centre for Women and Business in the Graduate School of Management, University of Western Australia, as a "sociological or anthropological study with a management focus", is a rare look at the lives of 50 managerial and professional men in their 50s.

But it was only part of the way through a larger generational study of men and women aged between 30-59 that the "elders" group was deemed interesting enough to write up independently.

"I wrote up Corporate Elders separately because they were such a good sample," she says. "[And] it occurred to me that they formed a benchmark to be evaluated against. The results portrayed what the Australian executive culture and expectations of managers have been."

Capturing achievements

Commencing their careers during the era of the "organisation man", these 50-something executives are now leaving the workforce at a time when the traditional career no longer holds the same attraction as it once did.

"My objective was to capture the elders' achievements and history in a holistic way for future generations because they are now rapidly fading from the Australian workforce through retirements, redundancies and retrenchments," says Still.

Still believes that in the practices of business and management, these "corporate elders" hold a core of beliefs and values that focus on the importance of honesty and integrity. So too, they have largely been successful, and many of them participated in, and oversaw, some of the biggest changes in the Australian workforce.

The elders interviewed for the book are an eclectic mix of people, covering a wide range of backgrounds. At the time, they had an average age of 54, all were married with one separated, some 70 per cent had tertiary qualifications including MBAs and Ph.Ds, half were either chief executive officers, managing directors or chairmen, half worked for large organisations, while the remainder were in professional firms or their own business. Some two-thirds held board appointments, 90 per cent were in full-time employment, while the rest were in "bridge employment" -  involved in equity investments, board appointments and other such activities.

Lessons learned

Still says that a number of lessons can be learned by both aspiring and practising managers from the collective narratives of the elders. In covering career and management experiences, aspects such as health, financial security, private and social life, outside interests, signs of ageing, and how satisfied they were with their attainments in life, their stories reveal details of the executive life as it was practised in Australia.

"By using the results from Corporate Elders as an evaluation point, one can look at whether there have been changes in organisations, and in the way work is practised within organisations, both in a managerial sense and professional sense: and there have been changes," she says. "The expectations of the workforce today for employers is different, as is the expectations of employees. Corporate Elders gives us a starting point to track that generational change."

As an example, the study shows that employers have to take into account the fact that they've got all these different generations in the workplace; you can't treat employees all as one. "The 30s age group are different to what they might have been 20 years ago," says Still. "They haven't settled down as much. I'm a member of that 'organisation man' group, and people were encouraged to really settle down, get married, raise a family and put your elbow to the grind. Now what you find is the young men in their 30s are off overseas or interrupting their careers doing all sorts of things: they haven't settled down like they did originally.

"We were all treated homogeneously before, and we all conformed. Well, the different generations don't conform in the same way now. And so employers are going to have to be more flexible: apart from work choices, they're going to have to provide more part-time work and all those things that people are demanding, because there's less commitment all around on the part of both employees and employers."

For the reader, the study provides a comprehensive view of a defined set of managers, dealing with the elders' professional and personal lives, career experiences and developments, and reflections on the managerial process. We hear from their heroes, patrons and mentors, and of their families, social lives and recreational interests.

Further, Still recognises the importance of personal defining moments, "[the ones that] shape people, both historically and socially", and the way that in comparing the age cohorts you can see how the attitudes change as a result of those defining moments."

Adapt and change

Significantly, in finding that the different generations don't conform now to the way they were taught and encouraged before, Corporate Elders reveals that the whole social fabric of work has altered and that people really are approaching their lives differently. (Moreover, Still also notes that the social change for women is greater than for the men: but that's for another book.)

"Not all the elders were as successful as each other," says Still. "In fact, some had a 'fall from grace' either through retrenchment or redundancy. The important lesson I found was that to survive and thrive, it was essential for the individual to adapt and change."

Perhaps too, the stories and experiences of these management men can give hope to many practising executives because, as well as sharing some of the secrets of success, they can be an inspiration to those looking for "wise words" of counsel.