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'Tribal Elder' Proves That 'Older' Does Not Mean 'Over the Hill'

May 11, 1997|MARTHA GROVES

Buck up, geezer boomers.

After a decade of layoff mania in which legions of aging baby boomer managers suffered ego-shattering career blows, now comes a heartening conclusion from the Hudson Institute, an influential think tank. Older employees--with their strong work ethic and well-honed experience--will emerge in coming years as hot job candidates. Praise the Lord and pass the bifocals.

That future has already arrived at TRW Space & Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, where a 60-year-old purchasing manager has become something of a guru in his waning days at the company.

A few years ago, with the urging of his family, David C. Treen began to change his personal style. Once a results-oriented, intimidating manager, he became more of a people person, taking time to listen to his employees and even helping them with personal problems over impromptu drinks after work.

Almost unconsciously, the bald, mustachioed Treen began dispensing workplace wisdom to younger colleagues, passing along tips, mediating disputes and serving as schmooze central. Blurring traditional lines of communication, he engendered affection among the growing number of diverse employees whose paths he crossed. In the process, he acquired the unofficial title of "tribal elder."

That tag was bestowed on Treen last year by UCLA management professor Karen Stephenson, who as part of a consulting project was analyzing the TRW unit's social networks. In a 1994 survey, Stephenson found that managers were doing a good job within their own areas but were not talking across lines. By 1996, the communication gaps had been closed.

Much of the credit, Stephenson realized, went to Treen, who had begun communicating more often and to more individuals. At an off-site meeting, Stephenson dubbed him a tribal elder--after the leaders she had studied as a roving anthropologist.

From her days of reading about the Leopard Skin Chief of the Nuer tribe in Africa and the Balinese Water Priest, and from evaluating Mayan tribes in Guatemala, Belize and Yucatan, Stephenson knew a community leader when she saw one.

"They know the rules, the history and how to get around the rules," she said. "They break old ways and make new ones. They have deep respect for tradition but are open to innovation."

Part therapist, part mentor, part go-between, part advocate--Treen gives the lie to the notion that older means over the hill.

And, although he is older by a decade than the oldest baby boomers, his experience provides comfort to members of that generation who have struggled to reinvent themselves to keep up with younger, more technologically facile employees.

Treen's transformation from insensitive but respected boss to compassionate leader began in the early 1990s, as TRW was grappling with the fallout from massive government defense cutbacks. Emotions ran high as job insecurity mounted.

Just as the organization was undergoing change, so was Treen. His children had left the nest, and he and his wife, Nancy, were getting reacquainted after decades of being parents more than mates.

"Maybe it was male menopause," Treen said. "I was ready for a change. Some lightbulbs went on, and I got caught up in this whole subject of communication."

Treen realized that the more competitive, stressful work environment called for a different type of leadership. His new open-door policy encouraged employees to share concerns. That, in turn, gave Treen an opportunity to run interference, removing obstacles that stood in the way of his group's progress. He encouraged teamwork by holding weekly staff meetings and by advising staffers on how to get things done, often by working around the company's formal structure.

"He has evolved and let people see the changes," said Roxanne Sahs, a purchasing manager responsible for high-reliability electronics. "He empowers his people. What upsets him is if I don't step up and take the responsibility."

Treen's knowledge of the corporate lore--his institutional memory--has helped his group thrive. He has taken to heart a colleague's definition of a good manager: someone who clears the rocks so that people don't have to stumble over them.

"Where I became most constructive," he said, "was in linking the past to the now, the future, and opening up doors to progress."

Fulfilling a dream, the Treens recently bought a Central Coast house on a golf course fairway, and Treen hopes to retire by year-end to work on improving his 9 handicap. But his bosses--and his employees--are reluctant to see him pass the baton.

"My boss keeps holding out carrots," Treen said. "I would never say never."

*

Does your company have an innovative approach to management? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Corporate Currents, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053, or e-mail martha.groves@latimes.com

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