If you’ve been listening to the podcast over the past few years, you know that we like to do something special for our listeners on our Christmas episode each year. This year, we’re doing it again! One of our thought leaders, Tim Elmore, released a new book called A New Kind of Diversity. We even had a conversation with him about it back in August.
Hey, podcast listeners, Mark Cole here. Welcome to the Maxwell Leadership Podcast. This is the podcast that adds value to leaders who multiply value to others. If you’ve been listening to the podcast over the past few years, you know that we like to do something special for our listeners on Christmas episode each year. So today I’m here to sing a song. No, I’m just kidding. This year, we’re going to do it again. This year, one of our thought leaders, Tim Elmore, has just released a new book called A New Kind of Diversity. We even had a conversation with him about it in August, and we’ll include the link to that episode in today’s show notes.
Recently, Tim released the audio book version of his book, and we’d like to gift you with chapter one today. We can’t wait for you to hear it. We think this book will be a game changer for the different generations in your organization and will help you make a huge impact in your company, in your family, and in your community with multiple generations. So we won’t have an application on the back end of the episode, like usual, nor will we provide a bonus resource. But please sit back, take notes, and enjoy learning how to make the different generations on your team a competitive advantage. So Merry Christmas. Enjoy a gift from us and be grateful that I didn’t sing to you. Now, here is chapter one of A New Kind of Diversity.
Part one: Mind the Gap
Chapter one: Who are today’s clashing generations?
Three years ago I was in Chicago speaking at a conference about resolving conflict. After my session, a CEO approached me with a comment. I could tell he was frustrated at his inability to mend some fences between employees on his team. His team was divided on a go-to-market strategy for a new offering. Some felt they should focus on their new social media platforms and utilize a more personal approach, interacting with potential customers via social media. Others felt they should go with their proven methods that work well for years. He suspected the factions represented conflicts between labor and management. After digging deeper, however, he recognized the issue was not that simple. He then wondered if the friction was about problems between departments, but it was more than that too. As we bantered, he had an epiphany. The lines his employees had drawn in the sand were about demographics. With few exceptions, the two younger generations perceived the issue one way while the older two generations saw it another way. Interestingly, five other executives entered our conversation, verbalizing their agreement that there’s a generational problem. They, too, were experiencing divisions, even chasms, on their teams along generational lines.
This conversation is not an isolated event. It happens thousands of times every year between people in the workforce. With the introduction of four to five generations in the workplace, and with a rapid pace of change, we can predict we’ll see friction on an increasing level. Paul Taylor, executive vice president at the Pew Research Center says, “Demographic transformations are dramas in slow motion. They unfold incrementally, almost imperceptibly, tick by tock, without trumpets or press conferences. But every so often, as the weight of change builds, a society takes a hard look at itself and notices that things are different. These aha moments are rare and revealing.” Sadly, according to researcher Megan Gearhardt at Miami University, only 8% of companies recognize different generations as a category of diversity.
Today, I interface with a growing number of managers who struggle to assimilate the younger age groups joining their teams. Their attempts to communicate company values or approaches to work receive varying reactions, depending on the generation and the background. While these differences have been around for decades, the times have changed. When I began my career, the mantra of most bosses was, “Leave your personal problems at the door. You’re here to get work done.” Today, the mantra seems to be, “Bring your whole selves to work.” And this means bringing their opinions, styles, posts, anxieties, and the desire to weigh in on issues as if it were a democracy. Too often the old and the young dig their heels in and reach an impasse.
Allow me to provide two case studies.
Tony Piloseno was an Ohio University student who took a part-time job working at a nationally known paint retailer a few years ago. Unlike many employed college students, he actually enjoyed his work. In fact, he loved it so much, he started a TikTok account just to show off all the amazing colors that can be made by mixing the store’s paint.
People were so attracted to Tony’s posts that he rapidly grew a massive following. As of late 2020, his Tonester Paints account had over 1.4 million followers and 24 million likes. As his tribe mushroomed, Tony realized he was onto something and told his employers his viral account is an example of what the retailer’s brand could do on social media. He felt it would be a great way to attract a new younger audience the store chain was not currently reaching. Tony pitched the idea for months complete with the slide deck, but alas, no one was interested. No curious inquiries, no positive responses. What he did get was something he never expected. He got fired.
“They first accused me of stealing. I told them I purchased all my paint,” Tony told reporters. “They made me answer a bunch of questions like when I was doing this and where, if there was anyone in the store while I filmed. There was never anyone with me while I was doing it.”
After the corporate offices investigated his TikTok account, they showed him the door. A brand spokesperson told BuzzFeed that a customer’s concerns led to an investigation and ultimately led to their decision to fire Tony Piloseno.
Why this paint store missed out on an opportunity
This story is a sort of case study on old school and new wave thinking. Here are three common reasons why we stumble into mistakes like the one Tony’s employer made.
1. When we’re comfortable, we default to, “It’s not the way we did it before.” While TikTok is among the newest social media platforms users are leveraging to market and tell their story, the paint retailer had no official account. Tony is current on TikTok and saw what corporate failed to see. Instead of embracing his viral approach, they dismissed him. Why? Despite the smoke screens the paint store hid behind, it’s clear to me they just couldn’t see beyond their familiar methods. Their current model was safe and predictable, and that’s what preoccupied their minds.
2. When we’re scared, we become more concerned with protocol than progress. In the aftershock of a pandemic, it’s easy to shift into survival mode. Many organizations relied on employee handbooks and bylaws to determine how to lead in this period of disruption. When we do this, we can unwittingly become consumed with protocol. We miss opportunities to adapt and turn interruptions into introductions, to new paths toward progress. No doubt that’s what happened to the paint retailer. Tony is now building his own brand.
3. When we’re experienced, we assume the young don’t know much. When seasoned leaders talk to a 21-year-old student, they can instantly assume their young ideas stem from naivete. We think they don’t know what they’re talking about. Sadly, reverse mentoring is one of the best gifts a seasoned veteran can receive, allowing a young person who recognizes the new world of communication to pass their intuition along. This mutual value can be exchanged only if their leader is humble and hungry. There are likely more details to this story that we’ll never know. Perhaps they would explain the leadership decisions at the paint store. Nonetheless, I still believe this company missed an opportunity when they fired Tony Piloseno instead of promoting him. He later moved to Florida, started his own company, and is staying in touch with his 1.8 million potential customers. The challenge between generations, however, can go both ways.
The other side of the coin
I know a number of employers who are ready to welcome a new generation of team members into the workplace, but the recent graduates are not prepared for a full-time job. Their schools did not get them career ready.
While older generations can benefit from the intuition of the newest population entering the workforce, it’s clear the young ones often need input from seasoned veterans. Some graduates entering their careers have never had a job at all, neither part-time nor full-time. They only know the classroom, not the workroom or the boardroom. Millions need to be coached up by someone with experience who cares about them and their future.
For example, Laura is a senior human resources executive who had just finished her 14th interview in a single week with prospective job candidates when we spoke by phone. She told me she was exhausted, but it wasn’t the volume of candidates she’d meant that wore her out. It was their readiness for a job, or should I say their lack of readiness.
Laura is a fan of Generation Z. She always reminds me of the immense potential recent graduates have, how much energy they bring to the workplace, and how much she loves coaching them as a human resource officer. This round of grads, however, was not prepared for much except for more schooling. Her interviews were almost unbelievable.
One potential employee could not look up from his phone. He was preoccupied with social media feeds, perhaps other job opportunities, and chose to multitask. There was no eye contact in the interview, poor listening skills, and very poor communication.
Another interviewee told her he wanted lots of free time every day. When she said full-time employees work eight hours a day, he said he wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment. He left after learning this information.
And yet another candidate received a phone call right in the middle of the interview and took the call. After a moment, she requested her caller to wait a moment, then asked Laura to leave the room, which was Laura’s office, so she could finish the call in private.
Laura’s reaction to these mishaps was revealing. She didn’t blame these young people. She said, “I just wish schools and parents prepared these graduates for what was coming. I wish the schools operated more like a workplace. I wish moms and dads required their teens to work jobs during high school and college and discussed what they were learning along the way.”
Sadly, this is rare today, at least when you compare it to my teen years. My dad encouraged me to get a job, a paper route when I was 12 years old. On rainy days I didn’t like it at all, but my parents reminded me how much I was growing from it, how much I loved making money, and how it was preparing me for an adult full-time job. I ended up working all through my middle school, high school, and college years in restaurants, ice cream shops, country clubs, and nonprofits. While I recognize some parents still encourage this, millions actually discourage their teens from working, wanting them to focus completely on academic scores. After graduation, however, those parents often realize their kid is unprepared for the marketplace and begin to compensate. Some even join their adult child at job interviews.
In 2017, 26% of employers said parents had contacted them to convince them to hire their 22-year-old son or daughter. One in eight parents attended the job interview as a sort of agent with their adult child. This kind of thing would’ve been mortifying for a young adult in my generation, but it’s becoming shockingly common today. In any case, when the newest generation shows up at work having never had a full-time job nor worked alongside professionals, it can be frustrating. What’s more, it can burn up all sorts of energy, call it sideways energy that distracts everyone from pursuing their objectives. What makes this issue even tougher is that the marketplace is changing rapidly. We’ve all heard the statistics about how today’s kids will likely graduate into a career or a job that doesn’t even exist today.
According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of children in primary school today will be employed in jobs that do not yet exist. The world of work is changing. One reason is that many current jobs will become automated by artificial intelligence in the future. McKinsey Global predicts that almost half of all workplace activities could be automated in the future. Once again, the world of work is changing. Employers must remember that younger generations of workers tend to adapt to such changes more quickly than older generations do. Generation Z will be especially at home with such shifts because of the experiences they had in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic spread globally, Generation Z was sent home and adjusted to online learning better than their teachers did. In fact, I heard countless stories of students who actually helped their teacher navigate Zoom and Google Hangouts. The revisions young people had to make in a year of protests, pandemics, political polarization, pay cuts and panic attacks were stunning.
While Gen Z suffers from mental health issues far more than previous generations, much of that was happening long before the COVID-19 outbreak. If we can help them navigate that issue, we’ll find them intuitive when it comes to the future. They’ll likely be the quickest to alter methods and will be your fastest learners.
Understanding each generation
Recognizing how to interact with other generations is both an art and a science. It’s a social science. According to historian Neil Howe, each generation tends to intuitively pursue three outcomes as they come of age. This isn’t necessarily a conscious pursuit, but rather an organic one as each age group responds to older populations. Years ago, Howe and William Strauss recognized that each new generation tends to:
1. Break with a previous generation, meaning Generation Z says to the millennials, “You’re cool, but we’re cooler. You’re into Beyonce. We’re into Billie Eilish.
2. Correct. Two generations ahead of them. Generation Z says to their parents, “I love you, but I will never do that to my kids when I’m a parent. I see your mistakes.”
3. Replace three generations older. Generation Z becomes aware of their aging grandparents who will be gone soon, so they value retro. “I want a record player to listen to Sinatra.”
Having as many as four to five generations working on a team is enough to exhaust any leader who’s attempting to connect with each of them.
The following is an updated chart I included in my 2019 book, Generation Z Unfiltered: Facing Nine Hidden Challenges of the Most Anxious Generation. The entire chart includes several more categories. I attempt to illustrate the different paradigms of each generation as they entered their careers and why they see things uniquely. Take a look at the big picture. Reflect for a moment about what shaped each generation. For those of you who are visual, you may want to check out the book to see this chart. Here are the five generations and the different categories that I believe they bring to the workplace.
So the Builder Generation, often called the Silent Generation, is the oldest generation still influencing the world. They were born between 1929 and 1945. Then the baby boomers came along, often called the pig in the python generation. They were born 1946 to ’64. Then the baby buster generation came along or Generation X, 1965 to ’82. And then the millennials came along or Generation Y, 1983 to 2000. And then finally Generation Z or the Homeland Generation came along 2001 to 2015. Now, I recognize some social scientists date these slightly differently, but let me walk through the life paradigm each generation brought with them into their adult lives.
For the Builder Generation, it was, “Be grateful you have a job.” Now, think about it, 1920 and 1945, there was the Great Depression that lasted for a decade and then World War II. For the baby boomers it was, “I want better.” The boomer generation started as the soldiers returned home from World War II and the maternity awards filled up. There was a boom of babies. To be exact, 76.4 million of them. We expected, I’m a boomer, a better life than mama dad had had. It was a time of expansion, not depression.
For the baby busters or Gen Xers it was, “Keep it real.” That was actually a phrase that became a thing when they were growing up. Those years were darker with the Vietnam War protest, the Watergate scandal, the OPEC gas crisis. It was darker in a time of cynicism. For the millennials, their paradigm is, “Life is a cafeteria.” It’s almost like a free agent mindset. They choose a music this way. They don’t buy compact discs. They form their own playlist on Spotify. They go to two or three colleges for one degree, making it up like a cafeteria. Spiritually, it’s like a little bit of Jesus, a little bit of Buddha, a little bit of Oprah. It’s mixing and matching. But for Generation Z as they come of age and they still are today, their paradigm is, “I’m coping and hoping.” So, they’re still hopeful, they’re young, but boy, they’re just coping with a very, very dark world that they’re growing up in right now.
Hey everyone, this is Tim Elmore. Thanks for listening to chapter one of my book, A New Kind of Diversity. The rest of this audio book is out now at maxwellpodcast.com/generations, maxwellpodcast.com/generations. You can also pick up a hard copy of the book at newdiversitybook.com. I hope you enjoy the rest of the chapter. Merry Christmas and happy holidays.
Let’s talk about technology for a minute. For the Builder Generation, it was hope to outlive it. For the boomers, it was master it. For the Xers, it was employ it. For the millennials, it’s enjoy it. But for Generation Z, it’s hack it. Get behind the scenes and figure out how this thing works.
Let’s talk about market each one represents. So the Builders bought and sold goods. The baby boomers introduced selling services on a major scale. For the Xers. They began to buy and sell experiences, thanks Starbucks and Nordstrom. For millennials, it’s transformations, things that actually transform our life. But for Gen Z, I believe they’re going to be introducing reinventions. It’s, “I’m transforming who I am and I’m fluid.”
Let’s talk about ethics. For the Builder Generation, they were conservative. For the boomers, self-based. For the Xers, media-based. For the millennials, it’s shop around. And for Gen Zers, it’s elastic. Research says they literally have an elastic morality.
Let’s talk about view of authority. For the Builder Generation, it was respect them. For the boomers, it was replaced them. For the Xers, it was endure them. For the millennials, it was choose them. Remember, life’s a cafeteria, so I’m choosing. But for Gen Zers, because they grew up with a smartphone in their hand, I wonder if their view of authority is not sure I need them. I’m asking Google questions that kids used to ask Mom and dad.
Let’s talk about the pandemic’s effect. For the Builders it was, “We’ve seen tough times before. By the way, my dad literally saw three pandemics in his life.” For the boomers, “My retirement’s disappearing.” For the Xers. “See, I told you life was hard.” For millennials, “What will this do to my dreams? Will I be able to afford a house?” But for Gen Zers, “I feel postponed and penalized.” Think about it. The pandemic started right as many were graduating into their careers.
Let’s talk about the role of work and the mindset of each generation. For the Builders, it was a means for a living. For the boomers, it’s their central focus. For the Xers, it’s an irritant. For the millennials, it’s a place to serve. For Gen Z, “It’s my hobby.”
Let’s talk about the role of relationships for each generation. Now, clearly, my goal is not to stereotype, but to help you understand. So the data seems to show for the Builder Generation relationships are significant. For the boomers, they’re limited and useful. For the Xers, central and caring. For the millennials, unlimited and global. And for Gen Zers, utilitarian.
Let’s talk about sense of identity. For the Builders, “I am humble.” For the boomers, “I am valuable.” For the Xers, “I am self-sufficient.” For the millennials, “I am awesome.” For Gen Z, “I am fluid.”
Let’s talk about view of the future. For the Builders, it was seek to stabilize. Remember the Great Depression. For the boomers, it was created. For the Xers, a little skeptical. For the millennials, YOLO, you only live once. And for Gen Z, FOMO, fear of missing out.
Now, these summaries explain each generation’s life paradigm as they joined the workforce. And again, my goal is not to stereotype, but to understand. Now consider each one’s attitude toward authority. My parents were Builders who taught me to respect all authority from police to presidents. Baby boomers like me felt we could solve the problems of authority by just taking over. Busters, Gen Xers, unplugged and simply endured authority as young professionals. Millennials choose their authorities. Since life is a big cafeteria, they are picking who they’ll genuinely follow. The emerging Gen Z population feels empowered by that smartphone in their hand. They ask Google questions, as I mentioned, that we used to ask our parents. If they were honest, millions of them would acknowledge, “I’m not sure I even need an older person to guide me. What do you know about my future?” It’s a new day.
What it takes to connect the generations
Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Hughes led a troop of soldiers in Iraq during the second US invasion. When a shipment of food, clothes, and blankets arrived from the United States for refugees, Hughes felt the best place to distribute them was the local mosque. When he led his troop through the streets to meet with the cleric, people saw them and assumed the worst. They believed the soldiers were heading to their mosque to bomb it. When Hughes and his soldiers arrived, the mosque was surrounded by locals with stones and sticks ready for a street fight. It was a huge misunderstanding. Fortunately, Hughes was a master leader. He first ordered his soldiers to halt. Then he asked them to point their weapons toward the ground. Next, he told them to take a knee, a most vulnerable position for anyone in public. And finally, he had his soldiers look up into the faces of the Iraqis and smile.
One by one, the local people dropped their rocks and sticks. Slowly they became calm and began to smile back, long enough for Hughes to locate a soldier who spoke Kurdish and Iraqi Arabic to explain to them what they had in their packages and what their intent was. Disaster averted.
Hughes displayed what psychologists call social intelligence. It’s a subset of emotional intelligence. It’s the capacity to navigate complex social relationships or environments. It’s the very ingredient leaders desperately need today. As I mentioned, relationships between generations at work can feel like cross-cultural relationships. When a baby boomer speaks to someone from Generation Z, it may feel like a conversation with someone from another country who has different values, different customs, and a different language. The effort that’s needed not only to avoid damage, but to collaborate, is the same effort we must put into a relationship with someone from a foreign land. And far too often we’re not ready to put in that effort. But if we did, what kind of advantages could we enjoy? What if each generation could see the value the others bring to the table?
Each of the four generations still at work offers a variety of gifts to the others. For instance, baby boomers bring life experiences, awareness of the pitfalls they faced, life coaching for younger generations. Baby busters or Gen X, a realistic perspective and pragmatic wisdom, resourcefulness and balance. Millennials bring energy and confidence, tech savviness, optimism, and they’re socially connected. And Generation Z, an entrepreneurial hacker mindset. They’re cause-oriented, social media savvy and a fresh viewpoint.
What if your organization had all four generations contributing from their strengths? What if each generation actually listened to others? It might just be astonishing. We’ll discuss this later in the book.
Every leader and team should be in the business of building strong, collaborative generations at work. When each of us can identify the strength of the others, everyone becomes stronger. In my humble opinion, our problem is that we live in a time where this is very difficult. Listening and understanding each other is not what we currently see in our culture. In fact, I think ours becomes a polarized, canceled culture far too quickly. What’s more, with the conveniences of on-demand, instant-access society, we are vulnerable to becoming more fragile and less patient as a nation.
Executive producer Michael Hoff summarized this issue well. I have taken his thoughts and broadened the language for our purposes here. As each generation comes of age, they have the option to develop into a strong or weak population of adults. They can become known for consuming or contributing, to become victims or victims of their era. Let me offer the cycle of history that demonstrates these sobering outcomes.
In the book, I put up a cycle or a circle where I show how this vicious cycle happens over and over and over again. But imagine if you will, these outcomes. Hard times generally create a strong generation, and the result is likely resilience. A strong generation often creates good times. The result is likely opportunity. Good times often create a weak generation. The result is likely entitlement. And a weak generation creates hard times and it’s likely passivity as a result. So you can see why going through hard times can either make us bitter or better. And you see what I’m pushing for here.
Where are we in this wheel of history? Well, both my parents and my grandparents played a vital role in raising me as a child. They both experienced strong marriages and families. They demonstrated strong work ethics and wanted to build one in me. They volunteered their time to the community and donated much of their money. My grandparents’ generation survived the Spanish flu pandemic and fought and World War II. My parents’ generation grew up during the Great Depression in World War II. From my experience, both of these generations became strong from it. They became resourceful because they had fewer resources. While they didn’t have some of the knowledge we have today, they led the best they could from what they possessed. As times got easier, however, the succeeding generations became susceptible to abundance. The data reveals that our grit levels and our resiliency declined. More on that later.
But we can recover if we learn to benefit from each other and to benefit each other. Our only hope is that we learn from each generation, both old and young. Regardless of what we think of younger generations, we must acknowledge that they are our future. They represent what’s coming ahead, not what’s behind us. If we care about the future, we must care about connecting with and equipping the generations behind us to lead well.
I’m not sure if you’ve ever traveled overseas, but I have noticed in my international travel that once I land in Paris or Cairo or Hong Kong, I am mentally prepared to work harder than normal at making a connection with locals. Why? In their country they have different customs and values and likely speak a different language. I have arrived in a different place. Bingo.
Even now, millennials no longer hold the cool spot on the team. Generation Z has arrived and they are intimidating to anyone older who thinks they’ve kept up with what’s trending. In late 2021, the New York Times posted an article titled: The 37-Year-Olds Are Afraid of the 23-Year-Olds Who Work for Them. It was all about the pace of change and how quickly team members who are once intuitive about markets and consumer culture are now lagging behind. 20-somethings rolling their eyes at the habits of their elders is a longstanding trend that many employers said there’s a new boldness in the way Gen Z dictates taste. And those employers who are not even 40 years old are learning to listen to the input from a 20-something. Buying habits and customs go extinct quickly, and the youngest teammates seem to know these customs naturally. Believe it or not, there is a gap between 20-somethings and 30-somethings.
Allow me to say it again. Interactions between people from different generations can resemble a cross-cultural relationship. Generations can possess different values, customs and language. The generation gap is wider today, and leaders must commit to work harder at these relationships than perhaps one from within their own generation. Awareness and tolerance, though important, are not enough. In the workplace, we must move beyond the baseline of mere tolerance of each other, toward having each other’s backs. We must move from awareness to integration, and once we grasp diversity training, we must move on to unity training.
The people from different generations on a team have moved past colliding and are now collaborating. That’s what this book is about. And my question is, are you willing to invest the necessary effort to connecting with different generations on your team or in your family? So I leave you with some talk-it-over questions before I move on.
1. Where do you see evidence of generational differences on your team or in your office?
2. What do you think are some of the dangers of this if left unchecked?
3. Do you see any positive elements in the various generations where you work?
Well, there you have it listeners, and that’s only chapter one. There’s so much more wisdom to be gained throughout the entire book, so be sure to get your copy using the link in the show notes below. On behalf of our entire podcast team, we want to wish you and your family, your business, your leaders, a very merry Christmas and happy holidays. We’ll see you again next week where we’re going to talk about leading from your values. Until then, lead well because everyone deserves to be led well.