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Be Adaptive - Key to Successfully Managing a Multigenerational Team

Recently I sat down with the President of Genesis10, Glenn Klein, to discuss how to get best outcomes from our team. A key theme from our conversation was the need to be adaptive and adjust our management style to the resource. Our conversation got me thinking further about managing teams and, moreover, multigenerational teams. Like many managers today, I manage a team of professionals who represent different generations. My teams are made up of Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials. 

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With varying levels of expertise, and years of experience, each member of my team is well qualified, with everyone making valuable contributions based on their unique talents that ultimately lead to the continued success of our company. Still, managing a high-performing multigenerational team can be challenging.

So, how do I approach to get the best outcomes from each team member? I realize that I can’t take a cookie-cutter approach to management. I also have learned that everyone is influenced by their prior work experiences, education and mentors as well as their parents’ work ethic and approach to their careers. Parents serve as role models. For example, one who struggled to climb the corporate ladder and did so successfully may inspire grit and determination in their child.   

These influences, good and bad, create an unconscious bias that shapes the individual’s approach to their job and their career. It is important for a manager to “dig in,” to learn what makes the person tick. Whether you are managing a small team or a team of hundreds or thousands, the notion of “digging in” can be leveraged and applied to a team of three or four or to your immediate direct reports. 

What works well for me is to play to people’s strengths, to listen and pay attention to behaviors. A saying that characterizes my approach is “I don’t play whack-a-mole.”  Why assign someone a task if we both know it does not play to their strengths and they will only get frustrated, procrastinate or just flat out miss the deadline? We are not getting best outcomes. Alternatively, I focus on individual strengths and creating a healthy, safe environment to learn and to grow individuals to take on tasks in the future that initially were not in their wheelhouse. Investing in our people and building capabilities is key, in my opinion. I am a strong proponent of professional development and mentoring.

As Liz Bywater, Ph.D. of WJM Associates writes, “On any given team, you will have people with a variety of strengths, backgrounds, personalities and work styles. To lead most effectively, you need to modify your management style to accommodate the needs of each team member. The flexible leader recognizes that there is nothing inauthentic about modifying his or her approach as needed.” The result is a high-performing team comprised of members of several generations that is super responsive to our customers—both internal and external, meets deadlines and exceeds the objectives we set for ourselves.   

"Smart employers realize that one of the keys to growing and succeeding in an increasingly competitive global marketplace is recruiting and managing talent drawn from workers of all ages," finds a study from the Boston College Center for Work & Families. "Leading—and successfully managing—an intergenerational workforce is becoming a business imperative that few organizations can ignore."

Challenges are inevitable when you try to integrate people with different life experiences, communication preferences and tech savvy into cohesive teams.  Here are some tips to consider when bridging the generational divide and managing multigenerational teams.

  1. Appreciate Generational Differences – Each generation has a different work style. Step one in my opinion is to understand and appreciate the differences, so that in turn you can tailor your management style to get the best out of reach team member.  According to the American Management Association, members of the Silent Generation (born 1925-1946) tend to be loyal, hard workers who value interpersonal communication skills; Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) tend to be optimistic, distrustful of authority, and prioritize work over personal life; members of Generation X (born 1965-1980) are more likely to question authority and strive for work/life balance; Millennials (born 1981-1996) tend to be team-centric and highly educated and Generation Z (born in 1997 -2012) are true digital natives who tend to be always “connected," in search of the truth and eager to make a social impact by mobilizing around a cause. And remember, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z, where similar, are still unique.

  1. Task Management – As previously noted, it's best not to take a cookie-cutter approach towards managing the team. Rather tailor the management style to the resource to get best outcome. Members of a team with 7+ years of experience in the workplace are mostly able to determine which project needs their attention and how to prioritize work efforts to include steadily working on future deadlines.  These team members, if they feel overwhelmed, may simply need a quick phone call or email to reassure and provide direction.

    That overwhelming feeling may stop less experienced team members in their tracks. Facing multiple projects—and seemingly competing deadlines—can be paralyzing, creating uncertainty on which task to tackle first. Establishing a weekly cadence with more specific guidelines and incremental reviews can be helpful to increase confidence and independence. I find it helpful to establish a quarterly mentoring cadence to nurture and grow young professionals into powerhouses.  After all, I know I am grateful for the strong mentors that coached me over the years.    

  1. Feedback. Discuss feedback—and feedback expectations with team members. This is one area where there is a generational gap. Millennials and Gen Z seek immediate feedback, probably best characterized as instant gratification. Think texting or Snapchat. Conversely, Baby Boomers appreciate a more formal, thoughtful feedback process with time to reflect and discuss.

To be a successful manager and leader in today’s dynamic workplace, it is important to understand the uniqueness of each generation to create an environment where everyone can thrive. A conversation will help with understanding the differences.  Don’t assume that every team member is dialed in and understands. The goal is to find common ground and bring different perspectives and experiences together to deliver best outcomes for the company.

Also read Ami's blog, Five Tips to Retain Workers in History's Hottest Market.

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