Bridging the Gap Between Generations: A surprisingly controversial issue

We recently helped a professional services firm design and deliver the content for its partner meeting. How to improve the talent experience at the firm was one of the most anticipated topics covered. The Millennial population at the firm had grown significantly in recent years, but very few were represented at the partner level.

The intention was to design an experience that helped the mostly Gen X and Boomer partners start thinking more like Millennials. There is a lot of talk about Millennials and some of the partners had begun to engage in that conversation, but few had started to think like them. The idea was that partners need to learn to better relate to their Millennial employees and the Gen Z students/interns who will soon be taking employee positions, in order to improve their experience at their firm, and ultimately engage, challenge and retain them.

We began the session with the executive overseeing the HR function describing the State of Talent internally. Her message was all about interaction – how people work for people and choose to stay at companies when they know and care about the people they work for and work with.  Talent stays when the organization gets to know what’s important to them and keeps their best interests in mind.

After hearing about the State of Talent, partners worked to increase their generational intelligence by playing a card game we designed called Know Your Talent. Through the game play, partners answered generation-based trivia, discussed how they would respond to real-life talent scenarios, told stories, and learned more about each of the five generations in the workplace today.

Next, a 24-year-old Millennial expert spoke about realities of the Workforce of the Future and the Millennial mindset in particular. As someone who both lives and researches the Millennial experience, the speaker set out to debunk Millennial stereotypes – lazy, entitled and narcissistic, and reframe them as goal-oriented, optimistic and ultimately entrepreneurial. While there was nothing particularly controversial in her presentation, in my opinion, her message struck a nerve with some members of the audience.

Some of the partners were ready to consider the speaker’s point of view on what Millennials and Gen Z workers need, while others were less ready. The partners who took to her message could see the things Millennials want – work-life balance, regular feedback, and development opportunities – as things that they also wanted and/or things that would be important in creating the kind of future at the firm that would attract the employee base they needed to keep the firm’s growth plans on track.

The partners who weren’t feeling it, felt like they and the firm they spent their careers building was being attacked in a way. One Baby Boomer partner told me he felt “really uncomfortable” throughout the Workforce of the Future presentation, and described needing to build a bridge where the workforce of the future could meet in the middle with the older generations, “the younger workers could learn from their elders’ experiences and the Boomers and Xers could start to learn more about what Millennials want – each having to meet half-way.”

While I could understand where he was coming from, the truth is that younger employees are in many ways already spending a lot of their time on the other side of the bridge, learning the business from those who’ve come before them. This interaction is extremely important – Boomers and Xers know what works and Millennials are just learning. But, the interaction must be multi-channel and both sides must be willing to learn, stretch their thinking and ultimately trust each other if the firm is going to be able to create a space for Millennial/Gen Z employees to thrive and lead in a competitive international market, both now and in the future.

Agree or disagree…that stance certainly got a historically stoic partner group thinking, talking, and strategizing on how they may need to change to make way for the workforce of the future.