Generational Diversity: No School Rules

Old school. New school.
No school rules.

Doug E. Fresh
“Keep Rising To The Top”


Recently, I was waiting for my soon-to-be 12 year old daughter to finish her dance class. She’s been dancing since she was three and so I catch myself, from time to time, watching the younger dancers scurry around the studio, remembering that tiny version of the girl I’m waiting to drive home, with her cell phone and legs from here to eternity.

I was in the midst of one of those strolls down memory lane when I witnessed one of the little girls, walking over to her classmate who was reading a little book.

“What grade are you in?,” the first girl asked.

The reader looked up from her book. “First.”

“Yeah, I’m in second grade, now,” the questioner reminisced, “I remember I read that in first grade.”

With that, she turned and walked her wise, experienced walk into Beginner Ballet class. And I had received some adorable lessons in generational diversity:

  • It’s all relative. Young… Old… Inexperienced… Mature… It’s all relative. When a 7 year old who has read the book meets up with a 6 year old who hasn’t, that 7 year old slips right into the role of grizzled old veteran, a role that could easily be taken over by an 11 year old sauntering out of Intermediate Ballet or even her dad, with his (increasingly) salt and pepper beard.
  • The question is: Have you read the book? If someone brings up “Liam Neeson’s,” do you get the joke? Are you more likely to reference Jay Z or Kid Cudi? Did that last question make your eyes cross? Whether it’s getting the joke, the pop culture reference, or the esoteric blast from the past, the world can be instantly divided two distinct groups:
    • Those who have read the book…
    • … and those who haven’t.

No matter our age or what generational label we may carry — or have placed on us! — there are times when we have “read the book” and times when we haven’t. So, though this advice is written with this moment in business in mind, there’s value in also keeping in mind that we all either have been or will be in the other group at some point.


I Am NOT Working 9 to 5


A 24 year old colleague shared, “My most productive time is 11pm-1am.” As I went back to our conversation around work style, I couldn’t help but hear Dolly Parton singing, “I am NOT working 9 to 5…”

If you’ve “read the book,” you know the “book” is actually a title song by Dolly Parton for the 1980 hit movie, “9 To 5,” starring Parton alongside Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. That may very well mean that you might take exception to what you consider an entitled expectation from my colleague that his work style should matter. “You adjust to the company; the company doesn’t adjust to you.”

Now, it’s true that the word “employment” doesn’t come from the Greek for “at my convenience.” As I was told in my youth, sometimes “you have to do what you have to do before you do what you want to do.” It is also true, though, that “We’ve always done it that way,” is an insufficient reason for maintaining a policy or practice. In order to create a generationally inclusive organizational culture, you may have to revisit and, perhaps, revise “the way we do things.” As a matter of bottom line success, don’t we want the very best from each and every employee? What some may dismiss as “coddling,” the most effective leaders may see as effective, efficient management.

Sure, you’ve commuted every day since you started, rain or shine, snow or sleet, but the central question should be: What is right for the organization, today? And what is right for the organization, today, my seven year old friend, may be a suggestion that comes from a face that, literally, looks like a 6 year old’s to you.

If you haven’t “read the book,” you may have read ““I am NOT working 9 to 5…,” and thought, “Right. That’s what he said. He’d rather work from 11 to 1, at night. What is happening right, now?” Well, all that’s happening is that you haven’t read “the book.” For the record, it starred the women from “Grace & Frankie,” which is a great show that you probably don’t watch but have seen on billboards and swiped past as you logged into Netflix. (In fairness, the show centers around wacky 70 year olds. People who don’t remember 1980 are not exactly the target demographic).

Anyway, while your desire to work at your peak mid-night hours may seem like no big deal, you may not be considering how the timing of your work impacts others… or how having team members work from home, in off hours, might shift the culture… or remember the debacle in ‘05 when Lance in Marketing tried working from home and– Well, given that there’s no longer a Lance in marketing, you can guess it didn’t go well.

You may have to earn — Don’t you roll your eyes at me! — You may have to earn the social capital and influence to make changes to policies or even your own work schedule. Think about it. Wouldn’t you be more likely to listen to someone who has been killing it for six months than someone who still has to look both ways in the hallway to remember where the bathroom is?


That’s What Friends Are For


As the economic picture got increasingly bleak in 2008, the last hired and first fired were often the youngest. Having been burned by approaching their employers with the expectation of longevity, if not loyalty, passed to them by their parents, these professionals created informal, but perhaps more powerful organizations: social networks.

They’ve taken the old Hollywood maxim that “This business is all about relationships,” and applied it to all businesses and all business. Whether over wine or wi-fi, trust is less a matter of shared office space and more a matter of shared interests and shared moments of “realness.”

As I learned about this phenomenon, I found myself humming, with my tongue just a bit in my cheek, “Keep smiling. Keep shining. Knowing you can always count me. For sure…”

If you’ve “read the book,” you probably just thought or sang — Did you just sing in the office? — You probably just thought or sang, “That’s what friends are for,” while imagining Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick, Elton John, and Gladys Knight huddled around a piano.

And, if so, your reaction to all this “friend” talk may be “Get your love at home.” Part of being professional is staying away from these so-called “real” topics. “Why should I know about your personal life?” “Why should I care about your politics?” Why? Well, if many feel like the twentysomething who explained, “I can’t see eye to eye with any of these people. They’re all fake,” you can guess what their level of engagement will be. And given that level of engagement, you can imagine how poorly your organization will do in terms of retention. Before you dismiss this generational difference, this new reality, swing by HR and ask how much it costs to conduct a candidate search, an interview process, and a subsequent intake and training process even at the entry level.

If you haven’t “read the book,” Stevie Wonder may be nothing more to you than a corny punchline your parents used when something was obvious: Stevie Wonder could see that! (See, Stevie Wonder is blind. So, if he could see it– You know what? Don’t worry about it. If you have to explain the joke, it’s not funny.)

Look, the whole “Never talk about politics” thing may seem fake, stiff or stuffy to you, but the reality is that there is a reason we have the phrase “hot button topics.” Sometimes, when we discuss these things, temperatures run high, people get “heated.” And a “heated” workplace may not be conducive to productivity. A “heated” workplace could lead to statements and hard feelings that would have been avoided had everyone had “cooler heads.”

In fact, in some workplaces where there is a desire to create a culture where these conversations can be had, professional support is sought. I once shared my view on comics dealing with controversial topics with a friend who was considering performing a bit about abortion: I bet juggling knives is fun… but only if you really know how to juggle.

Unless you want to have an organizational 911 emergency, you might want to make sure your organization has the necessary juggling skill(s) or just stick to tennis balls for now.


Getting Strong Now


One point of difference and contention we encounter in the workplace, in terms of generational diversity, is the expectation, on the part of younger colleagues, of immediate and consistent opportunities for growth.

When I think of how they enter the workplace, I picture a classic training montage. And just the mention of a training montage gets me thinking of Sylvester Stallone and humming, “Getting strong, noooooooooow. Coming on, noooooooooooow.” (Note: If you pictured yourself, running to the top of an enormous set of steps in Philadelphia and thrusting your fists in the air in triumph, you are awesome. That’s not the point of this article, but I did want to call it out.)

If you’ve “read the book,” you know I am talking about “Rocky.” (Also, Rocky II… And III… And… wait for it… they just filmed another one while you were reading this sentence.)

Well, pardon the pun, but our younger colleagues are facing a rocky road. The reality is that wages have kept pace with neither the cost of education nor the cost of living. They need to advance QUICKLY since employment may be a way to do nothing more than slow the growth of their daunting debt, at the moment. Add to that the tough lessons mentioned above and is it so unreasonable that they feel the need to be prepared to land on their feet? Not really, if we’re honest.

It may be that some people are so focused on tomorrow’s step up that they trip over today’s work, in the meantime. Yes, that must be addressed. Isn’t it also true, though, that a hunger to develop and advance could be leveraged? When we, “7 year olds,” mentor, when we break new ground with projects, policies, and procedures, we’re not just supporting our “6 year old” colleagues, but the future of our organizations and our very legacies.

If you haven’t “read the book,” please don’t judge the Rocky franchise by anything that came after “Rocky IV, except “Creed,” I guess.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ve got some tricky news to deliver. Your organization doesn’t exist to develop you. That’s not shade. That’s a fact. And if you keep that fact in mind, you may be more effective in securing the development and growth you (rightly) seek. Align your growth opportunity with organizational needs, goals, and initiatives!

The new reality is that we don’t expect people to stay within organizations “forever” anymore. So, it makes sense that you want to be prepared for your next step. It also makes sense, though, organizations are going to want some immediate ROI on their investment of development resources (time, cash, etc.). Think of and present your request as an opportunity to add value. Highlight the ROI if you want to maximize the odds of gaining buy-in from leadership. At worst, you’ll leverage others’ self-interest. At best, you’ll lay the foundation for the kind of symbiotic relationship that will allow you to continue to grow and develop throughout your tenure.


That’s All, Folks!


Ultimately, generational agility looks a lot like inclusion in other areas. Empathy… Understanding… We want to shift our approach to diversity to a place of cultural competence, where we are interacting effectively across all lines of difference.

Whether you’re a “6 year old” or a “7 year old,” I sincerely hope the kid in you read “That’s all, folks!,” pictured Bugs Bunny, and smiled. (If you don’t know what Bugs Bunny is, I’d argue your life is incomplete.) I hope that smile remains as you look forward to building relationships and businesses with everyone in your organization, regardless of what books they have and haven’t read (yet).





Orlando Bishop

Thought Leader

The Kaleidoscope Group