generational synergy

Navigating the Inter-generational Divide in Senior Leadership

The modern workforce typically has four generations working together. At leadership level, this can offer huge advantages.

The first Baby Boomers joined the global workforce in the early nineteen sixties. “Generation Z” began to collect their salaries in the late 2000s. In between we’ve seen the arrival of Generation X and then Millennials. All those cohorts have played a part in shaping the way we work and how we think about employment. And all are represented in today’s workplace.

In other words, the working population is multi-generational. That should be an enormous source of strength for organisations that successfully draw on the mix of experience and fresh thinking that age diversity brings. That’s true across the workplace as a whole and also at leadership level.

But that’s by no means always the case. Multigenerational doesn’t necessarily translate to intergenerational. The danger is that generational cohorts see themselves as different from one another. The challenge – and also the opportunity – for leadership teams is to manage age diversity successfully. This is about more than smoothing over tensions. It’s about taking full advantage of a powerful combination of talents.

A Changed Workplace

The workplace wasn’t always quite so age-diverse. More than half the baby boomer generation is past retirement age and while many have left the workforce, others have chosen to stay on. Sometimes, that is for economic reasons – for instance, insufficient pension provision – but often they are simply reluctant to give up something they enjoy. By the same token, there are still people in their eighties (the so-called Silent Generation) who continue to work. Thus, the percentage of older workers has increased, a trend accelerated by falling birth rates and a relative shortage of younger candidates.

So what does that mean for the way organisations operate? Well, there can undoubtedly be tensions. Younger members of staff may think that the generations ahead of them are out of touch and blocking their advancement. Meanwhile, those in their fifties or sixties might feel that their younger counterparts lack experience. Equally, they could feel their own positions threatened.

Rather than looking at the negatives, however, businesses should consider the upsides. As Forbes pointed out in a recent article, team members from different backgrounds and generations can learn from one another.

That sounds good in theory. But what does an organisation do if, say, an older member of the team resents, say, a shift towards more messaging on digital channels at the expense of face-to-face meetings? Looking at that situation from a different perspective, how do you address the prejudices of younger employees or managers who see an aversion to using Slack as a symptom of dinosaur tendencies? That’s just a small example of the way that tensions can arise. There are many more.

Common Ground

One way forward is to establish common ground.

This can be done in a number of ways. For instance, in an article for Harvard Business Review, Debra Sabatini Hennelly and Bradley Schurmasn recommend a program of two-way mentoring between generational cohorts as a means to break down barriers and misperceptions.

Essentially, this creates a process under which the roles of mentor and mentee are reversed with a a single session. So rather than, say, a Generation X era manager being assigned to mentor a Millennial who has joined the leadership team, the flow of learning runs in both directions. This is often couched in terms of younger team members having an opportunity to – as it were – turn the tables and offer insights to an older mentor but is really is a process of mutual learning. And that same Generation X manager might also be mentoring (and be mentored by) a Boomer. Crucially, the formalised nature of this process should take the sting out of any latent intergenerational rivalries.

And when it comes to the thorny matter of communication channels and styles, it probably isn’t a good idea for organistions to sit back and let tensions build. Rules of engagement are also required around how team members talk to each other and share information.

Digital Transformation

One advantage of cross-generational conversations is the role that younger team members can play in promoting digital transformation within an organisation. Typically it is the younger cohorts who will be the greatest advocates for cutting-edge technologies.

Equally, team members who have been around the block have a huge well of wisdom to impart. For instance, how does an organisation react in the face of a deep recession? This could be new ground for younger managers. Older members of the team have been there before and can provide the essential survival roadmap.

And the truth is that diverse leadership teams are proven to be more effective. That applies not only to diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and social background but also to age. Including the generations should be part of the DE&I (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) agenda.

And what should emerge is a realisation that some of alleged differences between the age cohorts are little more than stereotypes. In an article titled Making Sense of Generational Stereotypes at Work, consultancy McKinsey points out that the generations are not quite so different. And ultimately, the generations can learn from each other.