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
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
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
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
* 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