Conversations: What I learned from Bernard Shaw

August 17, 2007, 10:48 PM UTC
Fortune

Lately, sitting in the audience at a workplace issues speech or panel, I sometimes feel out of place. At almost 27, I’m already getting a little too old (and yes, cynical) to really benefit from the great advice for young people just entering the workforce. But I’m not nearly old enough yet to talk about reinventing myself, balancing work and kids, or many of the other pressing issues that truly mid-career folks face.

Which is why, listening to Bernard Shaw speak as he accepted a lifetime achievement award from the National Association of Black Journalists last weekend, I found myself completely caught off guard. Here was a man whose voice, in my house, accompanied some of the first major news events we were old enough to fully comprehend and form our own opinions about — most notably the Gulf War.

But while that voice sounded much the same last Saturday, the script was anything but a CNN newscast. Lulled into the stupor that often characterizes conference galas, all eyes focused when — as Richard Prince reported earlier this week in his Journal-isms column — Shaw said, “Journalists, hear me tonight. There are some owners in the business — bosses, parent companies — whose profit fixation and staffing directives and decisions sabotage the public good they profess to serve.” But that was just the start, and as I listened to Shaw, it occurred to me that — as awestruck as I was — this might be something worth sharing with you. So here’s what I learned from Bernard Shaw (on that August 11, at least).

“Embrace risk.”

That was Shaw’s message to those of us just starting out. Now, in theory, we don’t need Bernard Shaw to tell us to embrace risk; we hear that every day. But from what I’ve observed, in practice, we can be as risk-averse as people twice our age are purported to be, especially when we think we have a good thing going. Maybe it’s our close ties to our parents, who so often shield us from real risk. Or our need for validation and advancement, which risk doesn’t always guarantee. But for many of us, once we get into that stable, paying job, it can be difficult to imagine sacrificing that for a volatile situation with a nebulous and sometimes non-existent reward.

Take a younger friend of mine, who struggled with accepting an offer for a better title, more responsibility, and higher pay because she’d only been in her current job a little over a year. Once she finally brought herself to accept, she didn’t tell her parents for weeks, afraid they were going to be upset. Of course, they weren’t. And as far as “job-hopping” goes, there isn’t an HR person in the world who wouldn’t be able to see why this was a good — and smart — move for her, however short her stay at the old place. So I’m glad Shaw had that message for us in particular, because whether we realize it or not, we’re as footloose now as we’ll ever be, and we should take advantage of that. (Think Kerouac; it may be 50 years since On the Road, but being young still means being free.)

Diversity is worth yelling about.

Shaw took his own big “risk” when he said: “Beyond this ballroom tonight, white males, wake up. Globally, you are an island speck in an ocean of color. The reins of power will weaken, and so will your grip, if you do not faithfully support our nation’s greatest strength — diversity.” If you’re anything like me, you’re thinking something along the lines of gasp. Even in the comments on The Gig, a white male reader or two has expressed frustration with his own status, saying that as a group, white men are ignored or suffer as others are unfairly advanced.

But Shaw makes a good point. Here, at least, white men are still in charge, and that gives them an amazing opportunity to set the tone for how diversity happens at their organizations. And it isn’t about hiring a few people of color who somehow made it into a higher-up’s Rolodex. It’s about hiring people with different perspectives, from different places, of different genders, orientations, and of course, ages. One recruiter told me recently that she didn’t realize how much of a problem diversity was at her company — and how much more of a problem it was going to become — until a twentysomething white male candidate she was showing around finally turned to her and asked if everyone that worked there was a middle-aged white guy.

For that young man, it was jarring to be in an environment where those like him were not just the majority, but the only people represented. And that’s the thing about workplace diversity in the 21st century; it isn’t just a question of being a good corporate citizen anymore, it’s a question of staying relevant — and competitive.

It pays to be retired.

At least if you’ve had the kind of storied career Shaw has. It’s so easy to get caught up in the politicking of our offices and the machinations of career-planning, relationship-building, and all the other hyphenated stuff we’re supposed to be doing to insure our eventual world dominance. And that’s why it’s so incredibly nice to see that if there’s one reward that decades of great work earns you, it’s the right to finally say what you damn well please. (Even if people don’t want to hear it, as with Bill Cosby.) What’s the point of doing all of this if you can’t share what you’ve learned? Particularly when they’re lessons that the rest of the world clearly hasn’t picked up yet. So here’s to the wisdom of age. May we all have enough of it someday to make “crotchety” sound this good. (Or, as more than a few audience members at Shaw’s speech put it, “Go ‘head, Bernie!”)