A longtime leader in an industry that’s known for being youth-centric, Karen Wickre, 64, is a prominent advocate for making her industry more open and age-diverse. Wickre has spent the last four years as the editorial director at Twitter, where, she says, she “helps shape and amplify the ongoing daily pulse of information from the company.” From 2002 to 2011, she was a senior communications executive at Google, where she oversaw the development, launch and maintenance of the company’s highly trafficked blogs, among other responsibilities. She spoke to Disrupt Aging from Twitter’s office in San Francisco.
What’s it like to be an experienced senior-level executive in an industry that’s seen to be youth-focused?
Day to day, people don’t want to know how old I am. I don’t make a point of hiding it or broadcasting it. But you can take a look at me and guess something. I feel that people have respect for me — they know I’m not trying to be too young, which I’m very conscious of. But neither am I stuffy. I can socialize and be interested in the things they’re interested in.
What would you change about your industry?
The main thing to change, and I’ve seen this now at both Google and Twitter, is that there isn’t a lot of interest in professional development for older employees. I think there needs to be some way to be more creative about alternative professional development for the non-young segment of the workforce.
When you reach a certain level, the whole thing about performance evaluations is that you’re supposed to keep moving up the ladder. The fact is, you’re going to hit a ceiling. Everyone is going to hit a ceiling.
Let’s say you don’t want to manage more people, or you don’t want to manage people at all. You want to be an individual contributor or take on some other kind of role. Companies of all types — not just tech — have to figure out other ways to let people flourish and try new things, in ways that are satisfying and not just about moving up the ladder, if that’s not what that worker wants.
We all hit our ceiling, whatever it is. And when we do, how can a company keep us engaged and interested and feeling like we’re contributing?
Professionally speaking, what are some lessons you’ve learned as you’ve gotten older?
If you’re at all self-aware, you gain perspective. It’s a huge advantage to understand that some things will repeat over time, and there’s no need to panic or overworry. Things are going to repeat; they’re going to repeat in cycles; they’re going to repeat for different industries. And people’s behavior tends not to change that much. You just have a bigger, broader vantage point.
You also tend to be calmer, in my experience. That’s a big advantage to people around you who don’t have that perspective and get caught up in the moment.
What barriers have you had to overcome to do what you love?
I’ve worked around the technology industry for 30 years. The fact that I stuck with it gave me credence, and people didn’t question me. As my hair went gray, it was sort of like, “Well, she’s already here, and she seems to know what she’s doing.” So I didn’t have to worry about keeping up with skills, or breaking in in the first place.
I wasn’t interested in a safe career at HP — that wouldn’t have been safe, actually — or IBM or Cisco. I was more interested in newer technologies and things that were emerging. And that propelled me into staying current. I wasn’t afraid of that.
So in a sense it wasn’t about overcoming. It was more like: I’m here, I’m stubborn, I’ve earned a place here.
What advice would you give to your younger self? Your older self?
To my younger self, the standard advice: Don’t worry so much. Risk more. Try more. Travel more. Do more things earlier. Figure out a way to do things; don’t get caught up in waiting to do them. I didn’t wait for overly long, but I would worry less about all of that and about others’ perceptions of me.
To my older self, my advice would continue to be: When you don’t know what you’re doing, just put one foot in front of the other. Go out, take a walk, think. More broadly, refuel on the things that give you a big picture, like nature and art.