By Chris Lorence, ICBA
In today’s workplace, it’s not impossible to find five generations rubbing shoulders. With people working later in life than ever before, you could find a member of the Silent Generation, who came of age during the Great Depression, working side by side with a Gen Z digital native, who has no concept of a world without smartphones.
It’s hard to imagine how the two would relate, especially given that discussions of this generation gap are often peppered with clichés: older employees are resistant to change, while millennials are lazy and entitled. Clearly, such stereotypes are counterproductive and are often far from true. Any generation can be stereotyped and maligned, but it’s important to remember that each has something to contribute. Knowledge and experience are incredibly valuable regardless of what generation you belong to. Tenured perspective is as useful as a fresh, uninfluenced view.
The best leaders make the most of this diverse talent base to increase job satisfaction, innovation and productivity. One of the ways to do this is through cross-generational mentoring. Formalizing relationships between people of different experiences, tenures and generations can reduce misconceptions, break down organizational cliques and, eventually, evolve into practical knowledge and application.
So much tacit knowledge is held, like gold, by tenured staff, perhaps in fear that by passing it along they will no longer have value. However, it’s the process of sharing that can open up new possibilities. For older leaders, career longevity may depend on expanding their knowledge and understanding of technology and social media, subjects that digital natives live and breathe. Similarly, ideas that older leaders take for granted may seem wildly original to younger employees. Sharing those ideas not only helps younger generations develop professional skills, it helps the organization build its leadership pipeline too. Bringing generations together has been shown to reduce conflict and create a sense of shared commitment. Diverse teams are often more innovative, and employees who feel more engaged are more productive.
How you set up your mentoring program is up to you. It can be peer to peer or up and down the organization. It can be one on one or even via mixed-age teams. With the latter, mentoring relationships are allowed to develop organically, which can take some of the pressure off.
For a partnership to work best, it’s important to define your expectations and the rules of engagement ahead of time. Keep an open mind, trust in both the process and your partner, and be willing to learn.
It’s essential for leaders to help employees understand that each generation brings distinct sets of skills to the table and to find common ground between them. Personality types transcend generations. Boomers may in fact discover they have more in common with millennials than they do with their contemporaries.
Chris Lorence (firstname.lastname@example.org) is ICBA group executive vice president, member engagement and strategy