Episode 3 - Intergenerational Management


Welcome to Business Futures podcast, the show where we take an honest and challenging look at the technologies and people that are shaping business. I'm Emma Pownall, Datel's Marketing Director - and in this episode I caught up with Henry Rose Lee, author of “The Code for New Leaders” and an expert on managing the different generations that makeup today’s workforce, to discuss the roles that different generations play within the workforce.

Employee engagement is big business. With unemployment at all-time lows and employees hopping between jobs regularly, if you want to thrive, you have to attract and retain the best talent. And that’s got much harder, because the expectations, experiences, and needs of people in their fifties are vastly different from younger team members just joining the workforce.

So how can boards and line managers keep great talent on board? And how can everyone feel like they belong in your organisation?

In this show, I explored:

  • Intergenerational Management: why it’s suddenly become important to understand the differences between the generations in a company’s workforce

  • What different generations want from their managers and the companies they work for

  • And how businesses can use technology - and a bit of consideration and common sense - to get the most out their people



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To begin with, I asked Henry how the generations are actually split up in today’s workplace. Henry took me back to the beginning: 

“Really generational theory started in the 1990s, with William Strauss and Neil Howe, two American sociologists. And they have settled on five generations. And the oldest one would be the Silents. The Silent Generation, they’re sometimes called Maturists or Veterans or Traditionalist, but they run from about 1925 to about 1945. So they'd be aged 74 to 94, I guess, today.

After Silents, you've got Baby Boomers. So cool, because there was an enormous spurt in birth rate after the Second World War, that's 1946 to 1964. Then you have Generation X, and that is 1965 to 1980. Then you have Millennials who are also called Gen Y.

But they're called Millennials because Strauss and Howe said that when they hit the workforce, it will be the turn of the millennium, and that's because nobody in the world really agrees on the dates. And then finally, you've got Gen Z, and their aged roughly between 10 and 22 today, born 1997 to 2009. So those are the five generations in the workforce today.”

I wanted to know whether these labels exist because of tech, or the lack of tech, during childhood or when heading into the workforce. Henry explained...

“Technology didn't really come into it to begin with, certainly a Silent wouldn't have been talking about any technology. However, that's not to say that technology doesn't play a huge part now. Technology is a major line in the sand.”

I asked Henry why generations matter in the workforce. Her instant response was...

“Well in many ways they don't! Whenever I'm talking about intergenerational theory or about intergenerational inclusivity and harmony, I usually say this: we're going to label the hell out of everything during this meeting, and then we're going to go outside of this room, and we're not going to mention these labels again, because labels are dangerous, they put people in a box. And also generational theory falls apart as soon as you look at people's upbringing, or education, or the country where they live and work, or the job that they do. So generations matter only in so much as when we recognise the differences between some of our older workers and some of our younger workers, and the difference between using technology and not using technology. That's when generations really matter.”

So how do leaders within the workplace utilise this generational theory? I asked Henry for her advice.

“The best way to look at working with different generations is rather than labelling them, get mixed groups of ages and experiences and knowledge and skills together, which in most organisations we can do. And so the best way that leaders can work is actually to encourage different generations to work together.

I'll give you a couple of examples. One of them would be in a sales team, what often happens is, most of the focus goes to your top salesperson. And actually there's another way that you could look at sales. You could say, our most successful, probably more experienced and slightly older salesperson will be put with a newbie, who's most likely to be younger and less experienced, and we will call that a ‘dream team’. We will give them a shared objective, we might even give them a shared project, and actually now their selling capabilities are mixing innovation, novelty, variety and change, which our youngest generations love, and structure, stability and strategy that our older generations are really good at.

When I work with a client that has very few generations, maybe only one or two, I'll often point out to them, that one of the reasons why Google was so successful - the Google boys Sergey Brin and Larry Page - was because they took on Eric Schmidt as their CEO, and then chairperson, and he was with them for nearly 20 years. And he was already something like 22 years older when he started working with them. Now, I don't think it's a coincidence that Google's growth went from almost nothing in the four years that the Google boys were doing it on their own, and then mushroomed and exploded into the tech giant we see today."

Henry’s advice so far had been invaluable. I wanted to hear more. I asked Henry if there are leaders out there today, thinking about their workforce and how to motivate and bring these different people along, although perhaps don't have the mix to bring them together in that way, what else can leaders be doing? Henry didn’t disappoint...

“I think there's a number of things that they can do. The most obvious thing would be the board themselves being role models and taking a few actions which encourage the others. So an example would be that your board members would actively look for very young mentors, and would be reverse-mentored by somebody who is very much younger and less experienced. And you might say, well, what can a very young person teach a board member? Well, there's lots of things from innovative ideas to what are the latest apps.

And the best story ever heard was when a young Gen Z aged about 22 said to me, ‘whenever I get a new phone, or any new apps, I just play with all the buttons, and I push things around, and I try stuff out.’ And I said, ‘don’t you ever try and look at a manual’, and they said, ‘what manual? There aren't manuals anymore’.  And that really showed my age. And I think that this reverse mentoring means that you get the input of much younger generations, for the older generations.

And then there's normal mentoring, where the board might decide, well, we’ll take under our wing a certain number of fast trackers who by definition, are likely to be younger, less experienced, and we’ll work with them. So that's good role modelling.

Another thing is to make your town halls your events much more open and transparent. Because young people often say, and I'm not saying this is true, but they often say ‘the business is lying to us’. And it isn't that they’re lying, it's that the business doesn't necessarily show that it's as transparent in its messaging, as our younger people would like. And there is this whole point about social media that has opened up the world and said you should tell us everything. And whilst I absolutely don't believe that that is a good idea to tell everybody everything – “does my bum look big in this” is certainly not going to be a truth I want to hear! However, I think in all seriousness, being able to create a space where there's much more transparency shared across the organisation - and tech is really brilliant for this, whether it's through a WhatsApp forum, or another type of app, or it's through other areas, such as these open town halls, which could be virtual or face to face. And this transparency, and we're going to share as much as we can, for everybody in the organisation - is a way of connecting across the generational divide to everybody in the organisation. So that's another thing I would suggest.”

As we touched on technology earlier, I asked Henry how she thinks technology can help cross that generational divide in teams.

“I actually think the first and most obvious way is in communications, because so many of us are now working remotely or we're working in different places different time zones. And so we need to connect with one another. And I see tech as a wonderful connector. And of course, we may have to teach some people who don't know much about that particular tech to use it. I think once people know how to use it, then these sort of things become very much part of one's right arm, it seems like a normal part of the toolkit.”

As a labelled Millennial myself, I've heard many labels around each of the generations, both in the boardroom and in the office. I wanted to know which characteristics are associated with those labels, and which are just myths. Henry explained:

“I think there are a number of characteristics added across the generations, and quite a lot of them are myths, actually. One of the myths is that older people can't be tech savvy, they can't learn new tech, and there isn't any research in the world that shows that. In fact, all the research shows that the human brain has a thing called plasticity, which means we can go on learning for the rest of our lives. At the other end of the scale, there are myths for younger people, which do need busting. And one of them is that younger people don't care about money. That's a complete myth. Of course they care about money. But there's an A and a B to that answer.

The A is that a young person is very interested in money when they're getting a job. And so of course, like anybody else, they want to know what they're going to earn and is that value, and is that worth it for that particular job. However, the B is that if they are not happy, no promotion or money will make them stay. Whereas for older generations, what used to happen was: “give me the money, I'll just stay a bit longer, I'll deal with the pain”. But Millennials, perhaps through social media, perhaps through just sharing more information about their working lives and about their views means that if they're not happy, they will go.

Another myth that I want to bust is that most people think that younger people, so that might be Millennials or Gen Z in the workplace, will naturally build a workplace community. And that used to happen with older generations. But the myth is busted now because actually, statistically, our youngest generations do not build a quick community in the workplace, because they already have a community, and it's called their social media feed. And that's been built way before they went to this organisation or that organisation. And it'll be their way after they leave that organisation, which means that organisations need to work very, very hard to create a tribe inside their company.”

I asked Henry if there’s anything that business can do to help Gen Zs or younger Millennials to build that tribe.

“Yes, there are lots of things that they can do. And bear in mind that some of the things I'm about to say are also useful for all generations. I believe in intergenerational harmony and inclusivity. So I don't want to box people in too much and say this is just for Gen Z, or Millennials. So I'll give you a few examples. For everyone, including our youngest workers of Gen Z and Millennials, induction and onboarding is vital. So that, day one, are they celebrated when they join, do they get a goodie bag? It doesn't matter if you're CEO or you're the cleaner. What you want is a goodie bag that really welcomes you, perhaps a video or a handwritten card that says thank you for joining us, a buddy on the day, somebody who buys you a sandwich on the day. And by the way, I'd like buddying to be rotated across the entire team, not just poor Jane Bloggs, or Joe Bloggs, who gets the job of buddying the newbie for the entire week or month or year. But sharing that - that also starts the community. Inductions should be longer.  If you can make it a little bit longer, even a few days longer, you're building the community because the people are together for longer. And that starts to create that connection.

Another way to actually work well with generations is to deliver three things: cause, community and career. So cause is about, what does the organisation stand for? Not just what it sells, which is important, but how does it deliver value to each of the individuals who work in the organisation? To the teams? To every department and function? To the company itself? To its customers? But also to the world? There are many ways that organisations can talk in a much more positive way about what they do.

Community we've talked a little bit about already. But anything that creates a community is around transparency, feedback, connection, employee engagement surveys.

Something else that really helps is an innovation hub. Now an innovation hub can be online, and it can also be offline. But what it must do is encourage all generations to join. It shouldn't be mandatory. But if somebody wants to join the innovation hub, here's the secret tool, the secret sauce. It's got to have a business case, because otherwise what happens is all generations go, ‘I got this great idea, it's going to be amazing, we're going to make this work’, they have no business case, they don't know what worked in the past, they don't know how much it'll cost to prototype it. But if your organisation writes its own business case, like it would its own values, then that gets embedded in the DNA of the organisation and everybody goes, does it fit the business case? It does, yay, let's pilot it!

Reward anybody for anything good that you can. I have one client that has a COW, which is called the Cupboard of Wonder. And basically this a bunch of recognition and awards from just a few pounds up to hundreds of pounds for various things that are achieved inside the organisation, whether it's innovation, or it's best practice, or it's saving money, or it's making money, or it's delivering something there.

And I think all of those things really do help to build that community. And finally, career, I think every individual deserves to feel in an organisation like they have a place. And nothing builds that sense of place and belonging, like having a career.

And then we can create secondments, placements, rankings, gradings, we can create all sorts of positions where an individual feels that they're growing, and I'll give you something you can try, which is Primus Inter Pares. That's Latin for you! Meaning first among equals. And what you do is you take a team where they're all individual contributors, and you say what we're going to do is to create three new roles, these new roles will each run for four months, and everybody in the team can apply for them. And what we'll do is continue on with your day job, but we'll give you some extra projects to do or a task to do or something else. And you'll just be raised a little bit above everybody else for those four months, and then you'll be popped back down into your usual role. And it's amazing how that creates a momentum all of its own, where people suddenly think, oh I'm on a particular role, I'm on the rota, and I'm doing this for four months. And they feel like they've done something that has helped them to see beyond their individual role, but actually, they're still not going to be general manager or the leader of the business. But they've got that sense of momentum.”

I couldn’t help but ask Henry if there are any pitfalls she continuously sees that businesses fall into once they are thinking about a mixed generation workforce. She told me about some past experiences:

“Yes, there's a couple of things I see them do. One of the big mistakes is to introduce new tech or new communication tools, and sometimes that's the same thing. And then get rid of the old stuff. And that's really dangerous. So I had one client who introduced a lot of online, downloadable or streamed resources. And they took away all the PDFs that they'd been emailing everybody with their newsletter, and there was uproar, because the older generations like to print out the PDF and take it home to the family. So it's things like that, you should be aware of what you get rid of, I would run an old system with a new one. I had another client that used to have email and they moved everybody over to WhatsApp, closed down the email. And that was a big hoo-ha, that didn't work. So it's, don't just go with the new and get rid of the old, run those things alongside. The other thing is don't just do everything for the younger generations. Sometimes it's a good thing to bear in mind that there are these older, more experienced, and probably more structured individuals who have some more critical thinking or strategic thinking. And if they feel ostracised or left out, that can make them vote with their feet more than anything else. So it's about being inclusive, making sure that there are different generations involved. And that's why I like rotation of things. Because if a Millennial comes up with an idea, well, next month or next quarter, maybe it will be a Baby Boomer who’ll come up with a completely different idea, because they're looking at it from a different perspective and a different perception. So I like to mix and match like that."

The concept of a job for life seems to have disappeared now. My final question for Henry was where she thinks businesses stand in terms of their commitment to personal and professional development of their workforce. She kindly went into detail:

“It's a really big question. And it's not easy to answer. But let's give it a go with a few ideas. In terms of job for life, as you said, it just doesn't exist anymore. And one of the biggest challenges with it, our older workforce just assume that they would work in the same place for a long time, or that they would have some kind of job security. But really, it's gone for everybody. And with the pace of new technology, producing change within 3, 4, 5 years now, and it's probably going to get even quicker, most of us are going to have to learn, unlearn, and relearn. And most of us are going to have a portfolio career where we're doing a number of different jobs, but learning is actually vital for our personal and professional development.

Where organisations sit is that they are in fact responsible, but they shouldn't be alone. And by that I mean that organisations do need to think about their future strategies, not just in how they're going to operate or their business model. But whether they've got the right talent acquired, and whether they're developing their talent in the right way, for the next five years, or the next 10 years, or however long it might be. But the way that they're not alone is that they can include their workforce in that. Some of the things I've seen, which I really love are where organisations are saying, for some of their older talent, who are looking towards retirement - if anybody still can these days - they're turning them into associates and consultants, who will find out new information, learn new tricks themselves, and then bring that back into the workplace in the guise of consultancy, or support. But they're very much collected together as a specialist group of people who are going to reverse-engineer that back into the very business that used to employ them. So that's one lovely way.

Another way is to say to our younger generations who are perhaps becoming more experienced, what could you do to actually train some of the younger people coming in and then be reverse-mentored by them in the new tech that's coming along? So if you can see what I'm trying to say here is that, yes, we will have to keep learning, but no, we're not alone. And actually, we have people inside the organisation that can be our advocates, and our champions to work with us to either learn alongside us or to learn something and then teach us that. So that's just a few ideas. It's a big topic, but that's just a few.”

My guest was Henry Rose Lee, and in this show we looked at how businesses can make the most out of teams, cut across generations, and avoid a fractured workforce.

In our next episode, we look at business coaching. Many of the most successful leaders put their time and money into getting coached, but should we all have expert advice on tap? And in a world where the quality of coaching can be variable, how do you find exactly what you need?

See you next time on Business Futures.

This podcast was produced by ModComms, a full-service marketing agency offering innovative approaches to client challenges. 

My guest:

Henry Rose Lee, speaker, author, and entrepreneur 

Henry Rose Lee is an award-winning speaker, entrepreneur and author.  She is also an experienced Millennials, Gen Z, and generational diversity expert, regularly publishing articles online and offline - most recently in The Guardian and The New Scientist. She has set up three companies, each one supporting and developing ambitious, smart, corporate professionals and leaders who are headed for the top. Today, she also consults with corporate leaders and private clients to ensure that their youngest workers are attracted, engaged, motivated and retained, in order to deliver a high level of performance and productivity for themselves, their team, and their organisation.

Business Futures host:

Emma Pownall, Marketing Director, Datel

My team and I provide our customers with a range of events, guides and tools that bridge the gap between business leaders and technology.  From large conferences connecting customers with each other and the software world, to sharing customer stories that explain what is possible with the right business solutions, I'm focused on sharing how people and technology can support business success.