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Defining “Old School”

January 13, 2015 / in General Information / by

Post author: Mic Johnson

In my November 2014 blog post 3 Business Trends (I’m Thrilled About) That Are Coming Soon, one of the trends I talked about was “The Death of Old School Cultures.”

Not long after the post was published and shared with our social networks, I received an email from our friend and client Mike Chamberlain.

Mike told me he shared my blog post with a LinkedIn Group he’s in and someone in the group responded to the post saying:

“I’d love to know what the author was referring to as ‘old school’…”

R.I.P. Old School
R.I.P. Old School

I thought about it for a bit and realized that it was a great point. I routinely use the term “old school” when talking to people about many of the corporate cultures I’ve seen, been a part of, and heard about from others.

And when I use the phrase, most people nod their head in a “Yep, I know exactly what you’re talking about” kind of way.

It honestly never occurred to me that it needed defining. Now I’m sure that some people think that when they hear the term “old school”, that it references a person’s age.

And there’s no denying that, at least in my experience, many people that currently fall into this category are in the generations ahead of me and many of them are in positions of leadership.

But this isn’t about calling out a generation. The reality is many of us have a blend of generational characteristics. In fact, I often call myself a “Gen X’er with Y Tendencies” because many of the things that Millennials want in business (a voice, flexibility, technology, wanting to be a part of something bigger than themselves, etc.) are all things I wanted when I worked in corporate years ago.

But I never found it. And Generation X wasn’t a big enough group to make widespread, fundamental and seismic shifts in how organizations were run and how business was done. So many Gen X’ers just adapted, traded in their voice for “security” and benefits, and did pretty much what the Boomers before them did.

That won’t be, and isn’t, the case with Gen Y. By their sheer size, they will (and already are) change the way business is done…and will start forcing old school cultures to fundamentally change…or die.

Let me be clear: When I talk about “old school”, I’m not talking about age. I’m talking about outdated corporate cultures, mindsets, and yes, people, that have gone unchallenged for far too long. They are champions of the status quo. And they need to go.

Below was my response to Mike (He shared it with the LinkedIn Group because it was a private group). This reply isn’t the “end all be all” on the subject, but it captures my “gut level” thoughts when I first got Mike’s email. I felt it was important to share the raw and unedited version here:

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“When I think of the term “old school” as it relates to business, I think of organizations where employees don’t have a voice, where leadership makes decisions in a top-down fashion instead of a collaborative one, where technology is out of date, where there’s an attitude of “that’s the way things have always been done around here”, where minimal effort and expense is put into education and development opportunities for employees, where management is full of people that aren’t effective communicators/motivators/leaders, where people are afraid to speak truth to power, where the vision and mission of the organization isn’t clear, where leadership lacks humility, where there is a lack of accountability throughout the organization, where the identification, hiring and development of talent isn’t given the critical attention it deserves, where there is confusion around the culture of the organization, where the fear of change leads to paralysis, and where there is a massive disconnect between the people in charge (typically Boomers) and the GenX’ers and Millennials that are ready to do things differently once those above them get out of the way…. or at least start listening.

When I talk about generations, I’m generalizing of course. Give me a Boomer leader that “gets it” but knows he/she needs help, and I’ll work with them all day long.

Give me a Boomer leader that surrounds himself/herself with people that just say YES and who thinks he/she is always the smartest person in the room, and I’ll run immediately in the other direction and tell everyone else to do the same.

I have routinely asked people what the best company cultures are in Kansas City and they rarely have an answer. That’s a problem. And it’s really sad. I believe we have a culture crisis going on in business… and what I mentioned above are a lot of the reasons why.”

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I believe this is a conversation that ALL of us need to start having. And people need to start standing up for what they believe in and stop being afraid to speak truth to power. Many employees have gone without a voice in organizations for far too long. That has to change if progress is going to be made in finally putting old school cultures where they belong…in the past.

As always, thanks for taking the time to read and share this blog post with others. Join the conversation and let us know what you think.

  1. Mic, another great post! And kudos to Mike for posting the original blog post and then following up with a great question. I’ve always thought of “old school’ in the business world as “the good ole’ boys club”. Slowly I’m starting to see it less and less, but I’m seeing it replaced with ruthless, power-hungry, downright mean… (wait for it)…


    I’ve never been one to censor my thoughts… and its done me well for the last 8 or so years. I’m fearless. I have shared my thoughts about leadership in a respectful and non-complaining way, discussed how things could change for the betterment of the employees and organization, and thought of solutions for change not just observing all of the problems. Speaking out is the only way to truly impact change. I’ve never been afraid of sharing these thoughts, because I don’t believe they are crazy thoughts. I believe they are common in sense, come from a good place promoting forward progress, and overall for the betterment of employee moral (and we all know that happy workers are better workers). For quite some time, my thoughts were listened to, valued, and some even acted upon. I was even once called the “future of our business”.

    I’m finding now that these “opinions of Jen’s” are not as popular as they once were. And they might be challenging to our new found leadership. Not only am I a bit baffled (I have NO desire to be in a leadership position for many reasons, but this “us vs. them” mentality is utterly ridiculous) but I find it really interesting… I haven’t changed, however, something else definitely has. Then I look around and realize, almost everyone in leadership around me has changed. So while I think its important to address the “old school” culture… I’m finding myself also needing to address what its being replaced with (within my experience, of course). So far… I’m SO not impressed. What I’m seeing is a “weeding” of what was recently valued; and that puts me, and others like me, in a pretty precarious situation.

    1. Jen,

      As always, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts and experiences. There’s no doubt that a change in leadership can dramatically impact an organization, its culture, its processes, and its people…..for better…and unfortunately…also for worse. Oftentimes when leadership changes hands, those that are taking over don’t spend the time to understand what worked in the previous culture…and what needs to improve….and rarely, if ever, do they take the time to actually talk to the people that work there. This has been a fundamental problem, in my experience, for decades. Employees don’t have a voice…and leadership needs to drive that…but it takes a certain kind of leadership and I’ve seen very few with the skills to communicate effectively with people at all levels of an organization.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

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