A Tale of Two Generations
Dan was visibly upset, pacing back and forth in his large executive office. He was frustrated at Amanda, the Strategic Analyst we had hired on our sales operations team.
She is just not dedicated to her work. I was here at 7 am when I was her age. You want me to spend money on training for her? That is preposterous, and a total waste of money. She needs to work here in the trenches for five years and then she will learn how challenging our business is. I learned everything by doing grunt work and through osmosis, by working hard in this business.
Dan arrived at work before anyone else at the company headquarters. Although most of the workforce reported to work after 8 am, he believed coming to work early was a hallmark of a professional. In his 40-year operations career, he was hardly ever late to work. If you ask Dan who he was, he would tell you, “I am the Senior Vice President of NeX, the premier Logistics company in the Midwest.” Dan was grateful for his job; he had worked hard and finally moved up to become the company head of operations. Dan’s identity revolved around work. Outside of work, Dan’s life was limited to his small family: wife Maria and his kids Samantha and Ben. Maria always had his dinner ready when he got home late from work. Dan was a boomer, in generational terms.
Amanda was a young millennial, with a viewpoint very different from Dan’s. She believed what she does at work needs to fit with everything else in her life: her friends, her husband Mark, trips to the local bar, and her hobby of helping foster dogs. Amanda came to work for NeX mostly because she believed in the company’s purpose of helping economically disadvantaged citizens around the world get products at low cost. She wanted to make the world a better place. Amanda had very little desire to work at NeX for a long time.
I was working with Dan and Amanda on a critical project for NeX. Dan had a vision to grow NeX into new market segments; I was responsible for executing his vision for NeX. Seemed so good for the company’s growth, didn’t it? There was one small problem: Dan and Amanda were coming from different places. In other words, they had different values about work and lifestyle.
I am a Gen Xer, part of the generation that somehow assumed responsibility for keeping the millennials and boomers aligned at work, or at least attempting to do so.
I thought to myself, “Five years? She will be in a different job within three years. If we are lucky, we will have her with NeX in five years. If not, she will be working for another company that offers her a sense of purpose, community and opportunities.” Dan was way off in believing that a millennial worker needs to learn the business by doing grunt work for five years. For a millennial like Amanda, the time needed to master her sales operations skills would fall in the range of one to two years. The math in their heads doesn’t add up – Dan thinks one needs to learn on the job for five years, Amanda thinks one would learn everything needed to do the job in a year or so, preferably through a customized training program.
I really wanted Dan and Amanda to get along. Really badly. If I couldn’t make that happen, the market expansion project was not going to move forward and in turn, the company was not going to move forward. I don’t know about you, but when I can’t make progress at work I feel like I am dying and also killing the hopes of colleagues and customers who want me to do right by them. It is as painful as the feeling you have when your car breaks down, leaving you stranded on the side of a busy highway while the world passes you by at a fast speed.
Let me explain with a Venn diagram. I have loved Venn diagrams since I learned about them in my fourth grade. I thought it was the coolest things ever. Hey, a Venn diagram allowed me to make sense of what my friends in Arts and Civics were talking about. You can illustrate all kinds of contrasts, common points and intersectionalities with a Venn diagram.
Allow me to explain. Let us assume that boomers work long hours and have paid their dues at their organization. Boomers are found in executive offices, mostly at stable companies. Let us also assume that millennials are looking for work life balance and finding their purpose at work. Now, Is there an intersection between what they can be motivated by? I argue there is. Both want to do what is right for customers. Both would like to take pride in making small progress on the project they lead. Let us not talk about the end product that the project will create. Not yet. If we can align around the next milestone, we can make progress now. Today. This week. Let’s make some progress. Let’s work from that magical place, the intersection that unites us.
If we are to work together, we will have to find common ground. Let’s stop focusing on how we are different and tap into what unites us — be it the need to serve the customers or something else that is common among team members.
We are going to be in the workforce with multiple generations for a while. So, let’s make it work.
Here is to finding common ground.
*Originally published on LinkedIn on August the 13th, 2017.