Forty years ago this week was my first day at my first professional job out of college and it was at a bank. Yes, that’s how old I am. My mentor and primary trainer was a gentleman about my Dad’s age. His boss, the man who interviewed and hired me, was closer to my grandfather’s age. His first advice to me was to either grow a mustache or wear a conservative top hat so I could look older and look more creditable. I laughed and grew a mustache.
It was fun then to be part of the younger generation in what was a very stodgy and conservative business. I could tell my older mentors got a kick out of having me in the business; I brought a youthful, entrepreneurial and less inhibited approach to banking. And they enjoyed teaching me the basics of banking and I had a great deal to learn.
Today there are portions of five generations in the workplace. Recently someone asked me for suggestions on how “to lead” so many generations in the workplace. My first response was leadership itself sees no boundaries, no generations. The three basic behaviors of leaders – vision, alignment, and motivation (John Kotter) – are timeless. What is important, though, is how business leaders customize these behaviors to fit the contextual and personal profiles of their teams.
In the Table in this article I have tried to present a visual look at the five generations with information gleaned from numerous sources. It can help us get a better sense of the external forces that might have influenced how a person from a specific generation behaves. However, a leader needs to be mindful that each person is unique and is more influenced by his/her own upbringing and genetic composition.
Vision and Mission. As a leader clarifying the vision and mission for your team is very important and can provide you with inspirational fuel. A company or team “mission” is how it adds value to the world and a “vision” is really a clear and tangible goal statement of what the organization or team strives to achieve. Research indicates that many Millennials (19-34 years old) are especially attracted to meaningful missions – missions that help people or improve the environment. Gen-Xers (35-50) are inspired by knowledge and professional growth and how their personal growth might benefit himself/herself. Boomers (51-69) and Matures (70+), while also inspired by meaningful missions, are often inspired by goals that allow them to mentor younger people. If you are interested in attracting team members that are Matures, they are usually looking for hassle-free and friendly work environments.
Alignment. Leaders align team members with goals through effective “communication.” Leaders who communicate clear goals can lead all generations and those who can customize goals are especially successful. Communication techniques have changed significantly over the decades and where generational preferences may differ. For example, while most Boomers and Gen X-ers, and even some Matures, have adapted to liking e-mail as effective communication methods, Millennials prefer text messaging. And this is definitely true in our business, where over 50% of our team are Millennials. We see that e-mails and even phone calls go unanswered and have adapted to understand this is not an affront to our leadership, but rather a preference of many Millennial team members.
I believe preferred communication techniques are not really generational – they are personal. Leaders need to adapt to the preferences of their team.
Motivation. When I read the various research pieces about how to motivate Boomers, Gen-Xers, Millennials, and younger Gen-Z workers I concluded that motivators are more specific to where workers are in their life cycle than in which generational bracket they reside. For example, when they note that Millennials like flexible time off, cool perks, and travel opportunities, the same could be said of Boomers when they were in their 20s with no children. Clearly we have found that customizing incentives to the interests and needs of each team member is the most effective technique. Surveying your team members to learn what they want can yield positive results.
Three Takeaways. When you look at the multiple of generations on your team here are three takeaways for you to think about.
- Ignore generational labels and try to relate to each person. Try not to paint everyone from one generation with the same brush.
- Try to encourage collaboration among and between team members from different generations. We each can learn from others with different experiences. Boomers and Matures can learn from Millennials and Gen-Zers how to effectively use on-line social networking. And, of course, Boomers and Matures can use their life experiences to teach younger generations what to do in difficult circumstances and how to make complex decisions.
- Try to provide a variety of benefits that can appeal to team members, who are in different locations along the life cycle.
Rebecca Knight in her Harvard Business Review article Managing People from 5 Generations wrote about “generational tension,” which is a term coined by Jeanne Meister, author of The 2020 Workplace. Generational tension simply means a lack of respect for people in a different generation.
Obviously generational tension in the workplace is nothing new and when ignored can have a negative impact. But when we teach our multi-generational team members to collaborate with each other, the results can be very powerful.
Power to a healthy generational mix – what has been your experience?