Consider for a few minutes the unique makeup of the various people in your firm. More diversity exists in our industry today than at any time in history. More color, more women, more religious differences and for the first time ever there are as many as five different generations working together at one time.
Generational issues come in all flavors, some more legitimate than others. Generation labels – Gen Z, Gen Y, Gen X, Baby boomers and Historians – imply a complex combination of authentic differences and improbable over-generalizations that come with each one. Those generalizations can be particularly problematic when applied to building a team within a professional service firm.
But some inter-generational issues are legitimate, especially those that have little to do with labels and a lot to do with perceptions of others. Two experts in generational issues - Rebecca Ryan of nextgenerationconsulting.com and Bruce Tulgan of rainmakerthinking.com - agree that differences among people-based events shape preferences for work and methods of interaction within a workplace. One thing that all generations can agree on, however, is that missing in many firms is R-E-S-P-E-C-T – the most fundamental need of any worker at any time.
Consider these scenarios and identify which ones could be chapters in your own firm's history:
- A 65 year-old Managing Partner (Historian) with a firm of 75 employees decides to develop a leadership program that ensures the firm's future viability. He builds a curriculum based upon his many years of knowledge, believing the best way to teach is to demonstrate how his career developed. Challenges arise when he discovers that some participants (Gen X and Gen Y) want to alter the curriculum to reflect new ideas and strategies. The participants pay little attention to his insights, and the MP becomes frustrated with the insistence on new ideas that participants bring to the table.
- A 32 year-old (Gen X) who is on the partner track approaches his firm with the idea of working a reduced schedule for a few years after the birth of his first child. He wants to honor his wife's desire to share childcare responsibilities, because they both have professional careers. None of the firm's partners – including two women – ever cut their schedules while raising children, so the request is a foreign concept to them. In fact, the partners see this request as a reflection of the young man's lack of loyalty, and he in turn views the lack of support as a mismatch between his and the firm's core values.
- A 24 year-old (Gen Y) staff accountant has been with the firm for six months and just completed her first tax season. She enjoys the work and likes the partner with whom she works most closely. She schedules a week of vacation for the second week in May, and her partner jokingly says, "Are you kidding? You've only been at the firm six months! Why do you need a vacation already?" The accountant views this comment as a criticism of her work ethic and starts contemplating a new job search. Time off after the long hours of tax season is highly desirable for her, and she and the firm come to an impasse.
- A 45 year-old Partner (Baby Boomer) begins the transfer of knowledge about her consulting work to two managers who were recently assigned to her practice unit. Both managers are new to consulting as well as the clients with whom they will work. As she discusses the training plan with them, each smirks and makes remarks about how they will "get it" and they know "how to do the research" if they have questions. The message that she hears is clear: "You have nothing to tell me that I want to hear." Her relationships with each sour from the start, and the kind of trust needed for a successful transition never emerges.
- A 58 year-old (Historian) Firm Administrator joins a new committee to discuss the development of policies to help the firm recruit and retain Gen X and Gen Y candidates. She mentions that partners have always taken candidates to lunch and tried to get to know them on a personal level. She believes this practice should continue. A younger committee member replies with a wish that they would stop talking about "what the firm has always done" because that is all old thinking. The FA feels devalued by the encounter and soon finds herself "clamming up" during the committee's discussions.
All of these scenarios are excerpted from real firms, and all can be fixed with a dose of respect from all generations involved. Nobody wants to feel unvalued - not a partner who has spent years building the firm, not a manager who has devoted more hours to the firm than to any other part of life and not a young staff member who is motivated to grow, learn and develop a career after spending many years in formal education.
So how does your firm build respect among all of its different team members? Consider these strategies:
- Make An Attitude Adjustment: Does every person fit his or her generation's profile? Of course not. Don't assume that just because a study says Historians don't like change that they will all be change-resistant. Don't assume that all Gen Y team members have a poor work ethic. Make sure you treat each person as an individual, and keep personal prejudices out of your thinking.
- Listen With An Inquiring Mind: An excellent strategy – no matter what your age – is to listen with the intent to LEARN. It is amazing how much more you hear when trying to learn rather than tell. Listen with a conviction to discover something new from each person to whom you speak. You will be surprised at the results!
- Train To Communicate: Firms spend significant time training and teaching technical skills. Unfortunately, many have backed off efforts to impart core skills related to communication. This is a mistake. Knowing how to communicate openly, honestly and with a purpose in mind is imperative to a firm's team building success. This kind of training should be targeted at current as well as future firm leaders.
- Value Diversity: Use resources at every level of the firm. Trust, respect and value are imparted when your firm promotes a culture of inclusivity. All generations should be included in the firm's important projects and initiatives.
- Produce a "Win Win" Attitude: Great listening skills and open communication breed a win/win attitude. When this prevails in a firm, discussions about "generational issues" will become less important and discussions about "what is best for our future firm" will take center stage.
Are you ready to download the famous Aretha Franklin song and make "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" your firm's theme song? Either way, be certain to consider this article and ask yourself how you and the firm can empower a culture of respect.