Learning & Development

Dec 01, 2021 9 min read

Managing Executive Obsolescence for Career Growth


We are passing through an era where there are no time-outs and no commercial breaks. It would not be out of context to say that either executive update or be ready to be out of the gate.  Now it is a grow or go situation.  Knowledge has become the key economic resource and the dominant, perhaps even the only source of competitive advantage.  Many changes have occurred on so many fronts in such a short period of time that executives appear to be frozen in time.  When the pace of change in the functional area of an executive is greater than the pace of change in his/her attitude, skill, knowledge, the end is near.  The pace of change is so dynamic and vigorous that what worked well yesterday will be less effective today, ineffective tomorrow and obsolete the day after tomorrow.

The exponential growth of information technology which has decreased the useful lifetime of information has made the problem of executive obsolescence more severe and more widespread. The demands of the job of an executive on a day to day basis leaves him with hardly any time to keep abreast with what is happening all around him by way of changing business practices and as a result, they tend to become obsolete in terms of their professional competence. Individuals, like organisms following Darwin’s theory of functionalism, will survive in their jobs only if they adapt continuously to environmental changes.  An individual who fails to perceive the changes taking place around him and consequently adopt a reactive rather than a proactive approach is undoubtedly more vulnerable to obsolescence.

Obsolescence occurs when there is a gap between the job needs and the individual's capabilities to meet those needs or when the skills and the knowledge of an executive are inadequate to perform his job effectively.  It would be relevant to mention that UNESCO has included “Lifetime Education” as one of the key issues in its planning, and the G7 Group of countries has named “Lifelong Learning” as the main strategy in the fight against unemployment.

Executive obsolescence is inevitable unless we choose to confront it with correcting initiatives. The problem of obsolescence has far-reaching consequences, for not only can it affect the individual, but also his department and organisation.  This in turn will affect the economy of a country. Undoubtedly, there are a number of possible outcomes, all of which may be detrimental for the individual, and the organisations.  Some may become so incapable that they are demoted, retired or made redundant.  Others may even cause so many problems that whole departments or indeed companies may have to close as a result of incompetence.

Since managing obsolescence has to be a shared responsibility between the organization and its employees,  the problem of obsolescence can be tackled by a two-pronged approach: (1) Initiatives to be taken at the individual level for self-development and updating; and (2) Interventions like training and continuing education to be taken at the organizational level. 

At the individual level executives can work towards updating themselves to maintain their effectiveness in their present jobs and also prepare themselves for taking up more responsible and challenging jobs in the future.  Initiatives at the individual level can be taken in the following four ways: first: make professional development your first priority; second: developing the right attitude towards learning; third: taking ownership for continuous professional growth by coming out of your comfort zone; fourth: setting high but attainable goals.  Needless to say that the goals should be such which can be attained by stretching a little. The purpose is to keep enhancing your competencies in ways that will help you ensure employability in and outside of the organization. 

At the organizational level steps may be taken to provide a work environment that promotes innovativeness, creativeness and risk-taking on the part of individuals in dealing with on-the-job problems so that this proactive approach contributes to the overall effectiveness of the executives and the organization. 

Organizations should make concerted efforts towards training in the following ways:

  • The performance appraisal should take into consideration the performance of the executives in their current role and their potential for taking up higher responsibilities. The appraisal should be followed by giving feedback, coaching, mentoring, and training.
  • Make training function a “mainstream activity” of the organization and align the HRD strategy with the overall organizational strategy.
  • Identify the training needs of the managers at different levels.
  • Getting the support of top management, as this is a prerequisite for training to have the desired effect.
  • Today training interventions play a very key role and must be taken very seriously.  In addition to top management commitment, the middle level also needs to be convinced of the importance of training for their subordinates so that the knowledge gained and competence developed through training can be put to the best use by creating the right and supportive environment.
  • Make training “impact-based” rather than “activity-based”.   Training should be assessed for its impact and not merely as a necessary activity. In the training context in addition to ROI,  “ROTI” i.e. Return on Training Investment should also be kept in mind.
  • For Promotion, improved performance rather than number of training programmes attended by executives should be taken as one of the parameters.
  • Encourage risk-taking and decision-making at middle and senior levels so that initiatives can be taken at their level and also actions can be taken without time-loss.

To ensure lifetime employability, education and skill development should not stop when one leaves the portals of an educational institution.  Executives should be continuously looking for opportunities to update themselves through self-development and up-skilling and re-skilling for enhancing their performance.  Organisations also need to take a holistic approach to training and developing their employees and provide adequate opportunities for the employees to use so that their enhanced competencies are used for contributing towards organisational goals.

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