Bridging the Generation Gap

I was contacted recently by the CEO of a very important public institution who was concerned about the future of her organization.  Like all public entities, this organization has been hit especially hard by budget cuts in recent years.  The drastic reductions resulted in large-scale retirements, particularly among the experienced management personnel in the organization.

The CEO called me because she was preparing to promote several younger individuals into their first management position and wanted group leadership coaching to assist in their development.  The deeper concern expressed by the CEO was evident when she informed me that in the next 2-3 years all of the remaining top leadership in the organization, including the CEO would be retiring.  That means, according to the CEO, the young people being moved into middle management today would be ascending to upper management in just a couple of years.

Talk about a leadership fast track!

This scary scenario is playing itself out in organizations all across the country.  Seasoned managers are retiring and less experienced managers are being rushed into leadership positions, in many cases before they are ready.

There is another phenomenon occurring that is quite unique in organizational culture right now.  Many of the new, inexperienced managers are supervising older employees, which often leads to a sea of conflict, teamwork and morale problems, especially with older workers who don’t want junior telling them what to do.

The flood of younger managers who lack the experience that we have come to expect in organizational leadership positions and the “clashing of the generations” can create  serious challenges for organizations.  Companies are struggling to emerge from the recession amidst a culture where employees everywhere are feeling the added stress and fatigue resulting from being placed in positions where they are being forced to do more with less.

Sound familiar?

You can overcome these challenges in your organization by thoughtfully implementing the following five-point plan:

  1. Communicate.  Expect problems and be proactive about heading them off.  Sit down and talk about differences.  If you have younger managers supervising older employees, bring the parties together and talk about their feelings and fears.   Recognize potential conflict.  Expect mistakes.  Bring two sides together and encourage honest communication.
  2. Leadership Development. This is more important than ever.  We MUST get our young leaders prepared to move up in our organizations.  Invest in their growth.  That doesn’t have to be three day seminars (although in some cases in may be) that involve out of town travel and the expense of overnight lodging.  One effective low-cost option is to establish an in-house mentoring program in which the older employees take the young supervisors under their wing and share their experience and skills.  This can not only improve the performance of your young managers, but can also improve teamwork, as the older employees will become vested in the growth and development of their boss!
  3. Celebrate differences.  Diversity of experience, culture and age is a good thing from which your organization can benefit greatly if managed properly.  Don’t try to get others to be like you.  Be conscious of differences and utilize them to your advantage.
  4. Provide a supportive environment.  Make sure employees are feeling happy and fulfilled in their work.  Accommodate their needs, including flexible work options when possible.  Listen and respond to their needs.
  5. Establish performance standards. Set benchmarks to all workers are clear on what is expected.  Apply those standards consistently.  Keep the focus on the work at hand and not the differences between employees.

It’s always a good idea to have a succession plan that allows for the sensible development of tomorrow’s leaders today.  Sometimes, circumstances like the economic times through which we have all been forced to live can derail the most well-thought out plans.  The organizations that recognize these challenges and develop an aggressive and thoughtful program for countering them will be in the best position to not only survive, but thrive in the years ahead.