GMF’s Approach to Strengthening Intergenerational Competency
With nearly half of the world’s 7 billion people under the age of 25, 90 percent of the world’s children to be born in less developed regions by 2025, and accelerated aging in developed countries, it is no longer possible to lead successfully without the competency to lead across generations. Whatever age a leader may be, she or he must facilitate the flow of information, insights and skills across generations, and empower intergenerational teams. The resulting mix of wisdom, perspective and experience, innovation, optimism and access to global problem solving networks gives intergenerational teams the leading edge. Coaching for Intergenerational Competency is still in its infancy. For example, training is offered through the private sector by such groups as FranklinCovey, and in-house in the U.S. government including for newly minted members of the Senior Foreign Service.
A few lapses in current offerings are immediately apparent. First, this coaching is most often provided to senior leaders— often a code word for older leaders. These seniors are placed in a classroom together to master management across generations, with other generations not represented in the room. This is counterintuitive. Second, such curricula—despite exhorting leaders not to use stereotypes—often stereotype age cohorts. Here are widely used categories put forward by business thinker Tammy Erickson: “Traditionalist(s) (1928 – 1945): respect authority; loyal to institutions; joiners… Boomers (1946 – 1960): idealists; grew up with a scarcity mentality; hard-working; competitive; anti-authoritarian… Gen X (1961 – 1979): mistrust institutions; self-reliant; tribal; loyal to friends; less identification with organizations/institutions… Gen Y – Millennials (1980 – 1995): tolerant; digital natives; live in the moment; family-centric; optimistic and upbeat; coordinators, not planners…” Like any labels, these are limiting. Third, this style of coaching moves rapidly from defining generational styles, to arming leaders with tools to motivate workers in different age cohorts. FranklinCovey, for example, proposes that in four hours, one should: “Resolve the ‘points of friction’ where one generation’s style or perspective is likely to conflict with those of another generation. Understand the eleven most common generational ‘points of friction’ scenarios using the included reference cards to find solutions. Learn how to engage the ‘whole person’ in helping team members from every generation apply their unique talents and contribution. Know how to conduct a ‘Whole-Person Engagement Conversation’ to identify areas for improving engagement. Follow a powerful 21-day implementation plan to put their new understanding of the generations into practice…“ This language conveys an impression of distance and awkwardness that seems unlikely to produce a successful intergenerational team.
On a more productive tack, senior leaders are sometimes instructed to coach, mentor and sponsor rising leaders, through intentional pairings and often with positive results and career growth for the mentees. Yet this top-down, power-imbalanced model for the flow of wisdom and perspectives may preclude significant and necessary learning on the part of the mentor. Simply by laying out the titles in this way: mentor (an experienced and trusted advisor) and mentee (a person who is advised, trained or advised by a mentor), a relationship is established between one who gives and one who receives, rather than two who stand to grow from interacting together.
In contrast, GMF’s approach is increasingly to join the generations together in immersive interaction and learning, as just experienced at GMF’s conference Atlantic Dialogues www.atlanticdialogues.org, where rising and senior leaders joined together throughout the convening, allowing a maximum of innovative thinking, networking, and exchange of perspectives and knowledge. GMF also tested this model at its convening on diversity best practices for militaries in late 2013 during which senior and young diverse leaders from Europe joined U.S. counterparts. The young leaders spoke for themselves about their experiences and avenues to successful recruitment, retention and advancement of diverse young talent, rather than being spoken about. Senior leaders were able to interact with rising generations in a ‘safe’ environment and ask some tough questions leading to their own growth, while young leaders gained visibility and confidence. All benefited from strengthened networks.
This approach to intergenerational leadership development appears to excel where other methods fall short. For this reason, GMF increasingly proposes immersive leadership development opportunities across generations, as well as other diversity factors. GMF has developed this model with the certitude that in the twenty-first century, with rapid demographic and technological change, it is essential that knowledge, skills, and insights flow among generations not in one direction as in a top down diagram, but rather as in an idea map rich in opportunities and interconnections.
Lora Berg is a Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund in the Transatlantic Leadership Initiatives Department.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.