(This article originially appeared in the International Association of Business Communicator’s CW Magazine)
Just a few decades ago, the norm was to have just two generations in the workforce. The old guys held the top jobs, and the young ones worked for them, replacing the senior members as they retired.
Today, four (and sometimes even five) generations pile into the workforce—all having their own expectations, drives, fears and career goals. For communicators, the challenge is to not only build diverse teams that span these generations, but to also communicate inside an organization and to all of our external stakeholders in ways that cut across the entire generational spectrum.
A communication executive could have 30 years of experience, not upsetting the traditional balance of the most senior person holding the top job. But often, we find ourselves on teams in which age is not synonymous with seniority. The head of internal communication may be a terrific leader and strategist at the age of 35, working with team members in their 50s.
Millennials may find themselves impatient as they begin their career, anxious for the “old folks” to get out of the way so they can get promoted and assume a position of power. The baby boomers may feel threatened, easily replaceable by the younger generation because social media isn’t one of their core strengths. While finally, the Gen Xer may feel comfortable that they have moved up at the appropriate pace, but the millennial is nipping at their heels.
For everyone to be successful in the same space, a mind-set shift must occur.
It’s a commonly accepted truth that you should hire a team with complimentary talents. As a leader, it’s wise to surround yourself with people who possess strengths you don’t. While the corporate climate today has changed, that strategy has not.
To meet the challenges of the new corporate climate, here’s the mind-set shift that must (and can) occur: Every communication team member can start to look at their colleagues from different generations as allies, not threats—as collaborators not competitors. Start seeing your colleagues’ strengths as skills and experience to learn and leverage, not out-do or avoid. For example, if you have digital natives on your team, pair them with strong strategists, or those with political savvy or project management experience, and watch them cross-pollinate; let the light bulb come on as they realize that they can build each other up, not battle for supremacy in the workplace.
A mind-set shift exercise
The mind-set shift may not come naturally to everyone. So, approaching the ability to work well together across generations must be deliberate and modeled from the top (whether the top person is 25 or 55 years old). Here’s one idea to break the ice (and perhaps continue doing on a quarterly basis).
During a team meeting, pair people up from different generations. Have them each share the following:
- One work (hard or soft) skill you know you are good at that others may not know.
- One assumption you have about the other person’s generation.
- One work skill or experience you would like to learn from the other person.
The result may be a greater understanding of everyone’s strengths and differences. Discussion about the assumptions could break down some of those barriers and encourage a shift in mind-set. And committing to teaching your teammates new skills they would like to learn can give everyone the opportunity to share their expertise, making a stronger and more collaborative team.
By putting together age-diverse teams, you have the opportunity to demonstrate in real time how each generation’s currency can be valued by the other. Encourage everyone to show up as who they are, and play to their strengths. That’s where the magic happens.