Multi-Generational Workforce Leadership: Can you Rise to the Challenge?

· by Herb Dew

Herb is the CEO of HTI. He founded HTI in 1999 along with John Knight and David Sewell, and remains heavily involved in the organization today.
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One of the things I enjoy about HTI is that we have always had a multi-generational workforce.

We have Boomers, Gen X-ers, Millennials, and Gen Z-ers. The strengths of each generation are often displayed within a single office. The challenge that accompanies a multi-generational workforce is integrating the differences between those generations.

As a late Baby Boomer myself, I have struggled over the last few years figuring out how to connect with this youngest generation entering the workforce.

I will freely admit that I have struggled privately with this and tried to hold my biases to myself. Yet it is a frequent topic of discussion as I sit on panels and speak to organizations led, typically, by Gen X-ers or Boomers. “How can we connect with Millenials and keep them engaged in the workforce?” A recurring question among C level executives. It’s easy to fall into the trap of bias when shifting from working with a group of individuals who share similar experiences throughout life, to a group of people you perceive to have a different set of principles than you.

I can’t identify the exact moment, but there was a moment in the last year where my frustration with this relational gap was more frustrating than the differences between us.

This realization was the catalyst in reevaluating my mindset. I decided to “change my lens” and try to view my younger employees from their perspective. Viewing the world through their eyes gave me incredible insight. I began to see their strengths, their principles, and the values that were most important to them.

For example, a chief complaint among older generations is that Millenials and succeeding generations are too dependent on technology.

While it is true, they’re more tied to their technology, they’re also exceptionally innovative when it comes to technology. They constantly teach us new ways to market ourselves, how to stay in contact with the community, and they’re always the first to know the latest news that’s breaking, the rumors circulating, or the newest company that’s landing in the Greenville area- because they stay connected. This is an INCREDIBLY connected generation. It’s integral for them as people. And you know what? I found that I liked that quality.

Another puzzling characteristic is their insistence on maintaining a work-life balance.

I used to question why they all walked out at 5:00 PM. I would stay until 5:30 PM, 6:00 PM, 6:30 PM, as I always do. Not necessarily getting anything particularly productive done, but because it was just “that way.” That’s the way I was accustomed to demonstrating hard work. However, once I changed my lens from a critical one to one of comprehension, understanding dawned on me. What I saw was that when they came into work, they dove right in. They understood their goals, and they worked hard to complete those goals so they could go home to their families, friends, and their community outside of work.

You know what I began to realize? This workforce is not as stressed about work, because they maintain that balance.

Something else I found, by looking through that lens, is that I am okay with leaving early. Not to say they won’t stay late when there’s something mission-critical, because they all will; but it needs to be mission-critical, not just staying for the sake of staying. Once I changed my lens and looked at it from the standpoint of “balance” I realized that they have a healthier outlook than I once did as a boomer.

Finally, I began to look at something I found irritating early on. Millenials have this tendency to challenge processes and unspoken “rules” of conduct.

It feels like they constantly question things that I feel like are above their “rank.” What I mean is, you might have a first-year employee that isn’t afraid to walk into my office and ask a question about the profitability of the company. Now, understand, when I was a one-year employee I wouldn’t have walked into the CEO’s office for any reason. It wouldn’t have been considered appropriate. But when I changed my lens, I realized I wished I could have. I wish I would have been brave enough. I wish I would have been accepted if I had done that when I was that young.

I think a young person has ideas and a perspective unclouded by habit, or office politics, or culture.

And we miss out on that if we’re not open to listening. So, I love that they walk into my office now. I love that they challenge me about something that I may or may not know as much as them about. I’ve learned from them as a result of that. They’ve challenged me to rise to the occasion and grow into a better leader and individual.

My mission of discovery is ongoing. So far, the greatest thing this generation has given me is the ability to change the way I see things, and I truly believe that makes me a better leader.

Gaining this perspective prepares me for a myriad of different situations I face as a CEO, some often extremely challenging. My advice to you, leaders that are struggling – consider changing your lens. Begin to look at the world from others’ perspective and prepare to be astounded at the expanse of possibilities that materialize before you. I think you’ll find you have the rest of the leadership tools you need to integrate those insights into your company culture.