As organizations continually restructure, traditional functions and departments have morphed into new configurations of talents and demographics. In the past, leaders were almost always significantly older and more knowledgeable than their subordinates, this is no longer always the case. Professionals in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s may be reporting to, advised by or teamed up with colleagues half their age.
This was the topic of “Your New Office BFF’s” published in the May issue of Money Magazine.
I was asked how executives can navigate this situation to gain the most benefit, while maintaining confidence and job security. In my view, the short answer is: Establish and nurture mutual respect, advancement and value.
Your primary goal is to achieve excellent results together, while building rapport and skills – not making friends, or proving how cool you are. Don’t be overeager to establish personal bonds. That may and can come later, with the right relationships.
There are tremendous advantages of intergenerational collaboration. Working with younger people:
- Keeps you fresh. I often learn about new trends, terminology and technologies from younger professionals. For example, I first heard about BuzzFeed at a social dinner, seated next to the first project manager they hired. Later on, when the company received major media coverage, I was aware and conversant about it. By paying attention to what your younger colleagues are doing, you can gain a completely new perpective, and more powerful ways to reach an entire generation.
- Boosts your productivity. Over a year ago, a young guy who regularly carries an iPhone, and Ipad and his Macbook with him taught me to access my Dropbox files from my smartphone. He explained and set up the app in only a few minutes, over a coffee. I have benefitted ever since by being able to view or send client documents, media references, and published articles from anywhere there is a WiFi connection.
- Provides an applied, casual opportunity for mentoring. You can offer so much based on your decades of experience. In an informal conversation, you can respond to and resolve many of the interpersonal workplace challenges a twenty-six year old faces. When you do, you are not only enhancing your team but also someone’s life and career. That’s gotta be a win-win!
Three quick tips:
1. Show rather than state what younger people can learn from you. You are not equals. You have more knowledge and experience. Make yourself available as a resource, but don’t push it.
2. Express sincere interest and appreciation when younger colleagues teach you a technology shortcut or a social media trend. Encourage them to explain carefully, and pay attention to the vocabulary they use. The vocabulary reflects both the innovative methodologies, and the new culture underlying them. Follow up later on by showing them exactly how you used the new skill or idea, and the benefits it had.
3. Convey your expertise and background with confidence. You will benefit both of you by demonstrating your expectation of and willingness to reciprocate respect. Once you lose their respect, it is a steep climb to regain it.
I’m not saying it’s always a perfect scenario. The younger generation may resist “lessons from their elders.” Human nature is stronger than logic. Even if a 27-year-old supervisor inherently believes he has a lot to learn from his 66-year-old coworker, he may not feel comfortable requesting some extra attention to help him through the rough spots. Maybe it’s pride, or embarrassment. Maybe it feels too much like asking his mother for help or being told what to do by his father. I’m an executive consultant, not a therapist so I can’t say, and ultimately it doesn’t matter.
More relevantly: imagine the collective opportunity of thousands of young professionals learning the maximum possible from our generation…and vice versa.