#064: You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks, or Can You?

As the saying goes, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” The presumption is that it is very difficult to teach someone new skills, or change their habits or character. To those who think that I say, “baloney.”

Teach, Learn

If you’re a leader in the marketplace today with a few years of experience under your belt, I say there are several things young people can teach you, and if you want to remain effective as a leader, you better pay attention!

I had a chance to test out that “old dog/new tricks” theory over the last 20 weeks when I was asked to teach a class on Sales and Sales Management at a local university. My class of eighteen 20-somethings destroyed some preconceptions, taught me some important lessons, and reminded me of several things I used to hold dear, but had let go of over the years.

Here are seven observations I gleaned from my class.

1) New Technology. OK, this one is a no-brainer. Today’s young people grew up with computers in their cribs. If it has a chip in it, they know how to use it. If it exists on the internet they know about it.

2) Entrepreneurial Spirit. Several of my students were already engaged in start-up businesses, which indicates that they are risk-takers who tend to think out of the box.

3) Social Consciousness. My students demonstrated a high level of social consciousness. They were more aware than I first thought about social issues, and that awareness impacted the way they thought about work-life balance, and even how they evaluated companies.

4) Dedicated Employees. I’ve heard many times how young people today don’t take work seriously and expect to have everything handed to them. That was certainly not true of my class. Almost every student in my class had held a full-time job either prior to college or during their college experience. Several were holding down part-time jobs while maintaining a full schedule in school. Some had the additional responsibility of being married with families!

5) View Employers Differently. In my day (shortly after the dinosaurs disappeared), we looked at potential employers with a preference to big stable companies, that offered the potential for lifetime employment. Today’s students tend to evaluate potential employers more for what the company offers that will meet their long-term goals: one company will teach me sales, another company will teach me marketing, and another company will allow me to be intrapreneurial.

6) View Work Differently. Along with being socially conscious, my students expressed a desire to have fun in their work. They looked forward to and expected to have, careers they enjoyed.

7) Highly Motivated Learners. My students were like sponges, they wanted to learn both the academics and about the real life experiences. They knew what they learned from the textbook was only part of the story, and that real life sometimes plays out differently.

Lessons for leaders of young people.

If you are a leader in the marketplace today you better be prepared to meet and exceed the expectations and needs of the younger employees. Additionally, there is a lot the young folks have to offer, if you’re open and willing to listen.

1) New Technology. A smart leader leverages the skills of the workforce, and let’s face it the young folks have a lot of expertise and a hunger for advancing technology. Use them!

2) Entrepreneurial Spirit. Combined with their willingness to take risks, and outside the box thinking, young people can be intrapreneurial assets to an organization. They will often look at problems from a completely different standpoint than their older peers. A smart leader will seek out the views and solutions young people have to offer.

3) Social Consciousness. A leader who discounts the importance of relevant social issues is apt to lose young people, both as employees and as customers. A smart leader will stay abreast of social issues that resonate with young people, and allow their employees an opportunity to be engaged in them.

4) Dedicated Employees. Young people are not, as some say, afraid of hard work. A smart leader will leverage their capacity and energy.

5) View Employers Differently. Young people may be less loyal to a given company as they attempt to broaden their skills sets through a variety of employment experiences. A smart leader will recognize this, and give young people the variety of experiences they need to keep them productive and loyal.

6) View Work Differently. Young people view work as an opportunity to express their social consciousness and have fun at the same time. A smart leader will see to it that employees can express their social consciousness, and create workplaces where fun is not a dirty word!

7) Highly Motivated Learners. Young people just graduating from college may have a solid academic background, but what many are searching for is lessons from real life experience. They are smart enough to know that they don’t need to make all the mistakes of their predecessors, and are looking for concrete ways to learn from the experience of others. A smart leader will use the seasoned employees to facilitate the real life experiential learning so needed in the younger employees.


If you are in a leadership position surrounded by young employees you would be wise to remember the Proverb, “Arrogance leads to nothing but strife, but wisdom is gained by those who take advice” Proverbs 13:10 (HCSB). Don’t make the mistake of thinking young people can’t make a contribution to your organization because they don’t have experience, and don’t assume for a minute that young people can’t teach you something! Rather, use what makes young people so special to benefit you and your organization. Otherwise, you will fulfill the saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Join the Conversation

As always, questions and comments are welcome. Have you struggled to adapt to the differences young people bring to the workplace? In what way? Can you share an example of a time when young people brought forth a solution that more experienced folks had not considered?

Young people…have you found older employees resist your ideas, or have your ideas been well received? Do you think employers generally do a good job of using your skills or are they missing out?

Category: Skills | Leadership Development

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