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By Bill Catlette and Richard Hadden
February 2007

In a span of less than 16 hours, each of us lost a parent last week. As is becoming increasingly common in our aging society, both Richard’s dad and Bill’s mom succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. The fact that both of us experienced the same kind of loss at almost the same time, under eerily similar circumstances is an irony not lost on either of us. Though the passing of any close friend or relative is traumatic, it helps to know that neither of them suffered, and that they are both in a better place. We are each grateful for the cards, calls, and emails we have received.

We don’t ordinarily identify whose voice is speaking in our writing. This time, we’ll make an exception.

This is Bill. As I was working with my brother, Jim, to draft some reflective comments about our mother, it struck me that there were still so many things I wanted to ask her, or talk with her about. Though she had been unable to speak intelligibly for several years, I certainly have had ample opportunities to have those conversations with her, but I didn’t avail myself of them. Now there won’t be any such opportunities.

This is Richard. I, too, failed, in recent years, to tap into my dad’s 80 years of wisdom, knowledge, and experience. My wife, on the other hand, the family historian in our clan, has long been in the practice of talking to those in the older generation to learn all she can about their lives.

On the Thursday night before this past Christmas, she asked my father to tell her about his 30 months in the U.S. Navy, during World War II. My first thought was, “Are you kidding? He couldn’t tell you what he just had for dinner. I’ll be surprised if he can answer you.”

I was surprised. For nearly a half hour, he related, with great clarity, the details of his enlistment at age 17, and his service. It was the last conversation of any depth that I ever heard him participate in.

Back to both of us. Believe it or not, this issue of Fresh Milk isn’t about our parents, death, or anything of the sort. Rather, as always, it has to do with the methods we use (or don’t use) to tap into the discretionary capabilities of our workforce. In this case, though, our recent lessons about our parents is absolutely apropos.

Over the next ten years, 76 million graying American baby boomers will begin disengaging from the workforce in very large numbers. Aside from the fact that there won’t be enough folks in the workforce to take their places, this exodus from the workplace represents an unprecedented brain drain.

Just as I, Bill, now regret not asking my mom how she always managed to see the best in people, and never utter a disparaging word, we will be losing valuable, irreplaceable experience and perspective.

And just as I, Richard, lost out by never quizzing my dad on how he knew, by simply looking into my eyes, when I wasn’t exactly telling the truth, we’ll lose out if we don’t ask those who plan to move on from the world of work to give us some of their best secrets before they leave.

All of us have a choice about whether we stand idly by and let that knowledge ride silently into the sunset, or instead, work at mining the precious nuggets of information that these folks would be happy to give, if we would only ask.

Not sure what to ask? Well first, it’s probably best not to make too big a deal of the fact that you’re asking them because they’re old. Those of us approaching a decade change this year, as well as many others, can be a little sensitive about that.

But pick out someone you suspect may be retiring in the next ten years, and start with questions like these:

* What was the best expression of appreciation you ever received from your boss, for going above and beyond the call of duty?
* What’s something you’ve learned recently, that you wish you had known years ago?
* What’s the most boneheaded thing you’ve ever seen a manager do under the guise of improving the business?
* Considering those who plan to be working for the next 25 years or so, what important thing are we missing, forgetting, or overlooking? What are we just flat-out wrong about?
* What’s the best, and most lasting way to have a positive influence on people?
* If appropriate, and if you can do so without sounding maudlin, tell the person one thing you appreciate about them. Each of us wishes he had done that with his late parent the last time that opportunity was available.

Richard Hadden and Bill Catlette
Contented Cow Partners, LLC

phone: 904-720-0870
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