Leading a Multi-Generational Workforce

Last week, I had the privilege of serving on a leadership panel about managing teams at the virtual 4th Bi-Annual Federal Education Symposium. Identifying potential in your workforce presents an array of challenges that must be carefully addressed. Different work environments and diverse personnel factors contribute to the complexities. Many of the conversations focused on retaining high-performing employees, motivating employees across their employee lifecycle, and employee recognition. Here were some of my takeaways.

1. Leading a multi-generational workforce comes with challenges, but also advantages. 

  • The experienced workforce tends to bring patience and interpersonal savviness; the entry workforce tends to bring urgency and tech adaptability. Some organizations fail to harness the collaborative and peer learning that can occur across generations. The key question is what can agencies do to partner generations to learn from each other?
  • What happens when you don’t have a multi-generational workforce? Having worked in a very young start-up with high turnover where the oldest employee was 50, and in organizations with low turnover where the median age is 55, both come with different cultures that shape an organization’s reputation and work ethic.
  • Older generations have taught me thoughtful ways to be a leader through modeling – such as caring for employees in ways that adapt to the employee lifecycle and the life span, being patient for the right time to introduce an initiative, and being flexible about the best way to introduce an initiative. 
  • Younger generations can be encouraged to share their way of thinking, adapting, and harnessing technology with older generations with every interaction. 
  • Older generations tend to be the culture keepers and provide a means of checks and balances for expectations, rituals, and formalities. Something as small as celebrating birthdays in a unique way helps to form the culture and unite employees under one set of values. 

2. Leaders need to wear many hats to effectively manage a multi-generational workforce.

  • The leader as a good communicator: The best leaders communicate regularly with their teams and individually with each member of their team; this includes interpersonal savviness: intentionally getting to know and supporting coworkers; 
  • The leader as a listener: The best leaders listen to ideas and consider them with thoughtfulness, they listen to complaints, and they listen to solutions. 
  • The leader as a line of support: The best leaders have an understanding of the employee lifecycle: Each employee values something different at different stages of their lifecycle journey. Every employee wants to feel valued, but what employees value at that time changes depending on their stage in the employee lifecycle and in their life.
  • The leader as a coach: The best leaders are succession and strategic planners. They always have an eye on where employees are headed and help guide employees along a path (that may include tailored professional development). The best leaders always know what the best version of the employee is and help coach employees to be the best version of themselves.
  • The leader as a visionary: The best leaders have a strategic mindset. They keep the team set on goals and track progress. They actively plan for the kind of talent they need to strategically grow or sustain. They work to develop the talent they have to move the organization into its future.
  • The leader as a cheerleader: The best leaders create space for celebrating and acknowledging employees, including successes and contributions.

3. The question should not ever be whether to promote the “young star” OR the “steady and experienced” employee. 

  • Promotion should be fixed to performance. Performance toward expectations proves an employee is ready to take on more responsibility. Expectations must also include leading projects (which include leading teams and collaborating across silos) to develop leadership skills.
  • But also, if a leader asks the question, “should I promote the “young star” or the “steady and experienced” employee”, they didn’t properly plan (see #8) and develop long-term expectations for employees to work their way toward this position.
  • The original prompt may have been getting at the difference between taking a risk on a young star who might leave versus a seasoned veteran who might be approaching retirement. Personality and performance play too much of a role in this decision; it should never come down to age.

4. The key productivity motivators for each generation in the workforce have changed.

Today, the biggest productivity motivators have to do with employee wellness.

  • Flexibility – I think the biggest trending motivator is flexibility. The fact that so much of our time is spent at a computer at work or in the car on the commute to get to the computer has finally caught up with us. 
  • Mental health – We see it in schools and workplaces. Mental health is impacting younger generations unlike we’ve ever seen in generations past and even older generations are starting to label these harmful effects of burnout and pressure.

5. Keep the employee lifecycle in mind.

  • Each employee values something different at different stages of their lifecycle journey. Every employee wants to feel valued, but what employees value changes depending on their stage in the employee lifecycle.

6. Consider how employees can be valued.

  • Not all employers can offer consistent raises and promotions for all employees.  There are various ways to show employees they are valued beyond compensation. 
  • Some employees need flexibility in different ways at different stages of their employee lifecycle/life. 
    • Some employees will be interested in new projects and responsibilities – perhaps by their own design. 
    • Try new ways of working, such as incorporating downtime, as well as sprints.

7. Focus on good leadership.

  • A toxic work culture is the #1 reason employees quit their jobs, according to the research. Having a healthy culture is 10 times more important to employees than pay. An analysis published in the MIT Sloan Management Review considered data from 600 companies, including turnover from April to September 2021, Glassdoor reviews from the last few years, and 172 culture metrics. Toxic culture was characterized by employee reviews as workers feeling disrespected, unethical behavior, abusive managers, and a cutthroat environment. Other leading predictors of turnover included job insecurity, burnout, lack of recognition, and a poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Stay in regular communication with teams about changes in the organization, even if you can’t say much about it at the moment. 
  • Celebrate employee successes and team achievements. 
  • Collaborate with employees on personal strategic areas of growth. 
  • On an organizational level, leaders should be partnering with HR: Succession plan yearly, and strategize about employee growth.

8. Harness planning.

  • Keep the team focused on goals.  
  • Collaborate with employees on professional development plans that align with department plans.   
  • Consider how you create space for innovation as a leader. Challenges present an opportunity for leaders to allow employees to be creative about developing solutions.  There are companies that have created rituals that support innovation in their company and the results show us that habits can also form innovation. One example is Google, which encourages its employees to spend 20% of their time on work they think will benefit the company. The 20% project has resulted in Gmail and Google News. Similar projects include 3M’s 15% rule and the Genius Hour in classrooms. Companies can also host hackathons or cross-functional innovation competitions, like Cisco’s Innovate Everywhere Challenge which has resulted in five ventures that have generated more than $2 billion in business impact.  For more on this, see The Innovative Habit.