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Bridging the Generational Gap: How do we overcome it?

February 26, 2009

*The below blog topic is based off a discussion that the 25 students of the ASAE Leadership Academy had at the Great Ideas 2009 Conference. The discussion was how we as an academy could bridge the gap between our generation and seasoned association folks, and the difficulties we had at the conference in terms of approachability.  Please note that most of this reflects my own opinions and goes off things I have heard, and does not reflect the Academy as an entity.

*The image is of the ASAE Leadership Academy, Class of 2010.

Leadership AcademyI’ve never been a big fan of stereotypes, but when talking about generation challenges, it seems to be at the fore front of it all. Gen Y is looked at as lazy and incompetent, and that is played up in the media through movies and news stories. I read a couple of months ago that most get their news from The Daily Show and MTV. Being a big CNN watcher (I love me some Anderson Cooper) this literally hurt my head.

So what steps can we take to erase this “generational” line? How do we as the younger generation approach those with much more experience and leadership?

Through the discussion, I found that many are intimidated to share ideas with senior staff, only because we have been burned so many times. The ideas we present might be great, but they are scoffed at only because we are “young” “don’t know any better” or “this is not how it is usually done.” When presenting ideas, I am doing it because I have respect for the leadership, respect for the seasoned pros and their hard work, and I want to contribute to that. However, being shut down automatically doesn’t help the situation. Many of us are extremely prepared and knowledgeable, and only want to learn.

I know so many seasoned professionals that are extremely willing to help the younger generation and cultivate them into future leaders. These professionals believe 100% in the organization, and only want to leave their “baby” in the most capable hands when they retire.  I think that my generation has an awe/fear complex – in awe because of the years of service, awards and all around great things that you have done as senior staff. Fearful because we want to give ideas that earn praise from those that have put in so many years. The reasons above are why it’s so hard to approach people.

My ways of connecting with the experienced folks:

1.     At conferences, collect 5 business cards – it could be from a speaker, someone 5 years older than you that you met at a reception, a CEO that your CEO introduced you to, or even someone the same age as you. View all of these people as possible mentors, and make a commitment to email them as soon as you are home, letting them know what a pleasure it is to meet with them, and how you would like to email them with any questions you might have, or if they would be willing to share advice on the field you are in. Cynthia D’Amour (Blogger, Author of The Lazy Leader’s Guide to Outrageous Results and Founder Chapter Leaders Playground) put it to me best: Look at it as dating. You need to “wine and dine” the people who you would like to give you advice. By turning to them first for expertise and advice, your ideas will likely be that much better and received. Try to email or call at least once every week or other week – and if they live close, take them for lunch or coffee sometime. Food and drink tend to make the atmosphere much more comfortable and not as controlled. You are taking them out of a working atmosphere and showing that you value them as a professional, and as a friend.

2.       Have a point person at your office that is senior staff – whether it is your CEO, direct boss or someone that you value and respect. I would suggest having a meeting with them on your goals in the field, and ask for any advice or people they think you should talk to. A CEO that is introduced to a younger generation person by another already knows that you have the respect of someone at their level – and they will already put you at a higher level than others.

3.     Mingle with those of your own age that might be better at networking. Let’s face it, not all of us are able to just walk up to someone and strike up a conversation. Seek out those that can, and learn from them – see how they approach a situation, what works and what doesn’t, and 9 times out of 10, you will connect with someone that you might never have met. Repeat step 1. Who said that you can only have 1 mentor? I have about 20 that I can think of off the top of my head. Mentors can only make you better – their advice, the mistakes, that is what shapes me as a professional and as a leader. If it makes you nervous to talk to someone in the same field, start practicing when you go to the grocery store. Strike up a conversation with the checker. Introduce yourself to the waiter the next time you go to a restaurant. (Yes, I do this, and I never get bad service.)

4.     Compliment, Compliment, Compliment. We all like to hear how much a rockstar we are. Make sure in emails to remain professional, but to also compliment when it deems necessary. These people have put in so many hours and work, and they deserve to be recognized for that, just as much as we do. Their ideas need to be heard, and their advice, so why not let the door swing both ways?

5.     Listen. Just because I am young, does not mean I can’t put into action what I hear. Just because I’m young, it doesn’t mean that my ideas aren’t as good as yours. I once did an experiment about a year ago (I was 22.) I have always been able to interact easily with anyone, because my parents would take me to social events at friends houses, or my grandparents would, and they would take me to receptions, cocktail parties, etc. Because of this, I can usually pass off the personality of someone at least 5 years older. I found if I said that I was 28 v. when I said I was 22, I was listened to more. The content and tone were the same. In this society, age = respect right off the bat, until you prove you don’t deserve it. If you’re young, you have to work for the respect. Maybe if we all listened to each other more and leveled the playing field, much more would be accomplished. Hierarchy is great, but too much of it gets you nowhere. At my office, we do an experiment whenever someone comes in to interview – our membership director pretends to be the receptionist to see how she is treated. We are all viewed on the same playing field in that our ideas are always valued, but we still operate on a hierarchy.

6.     Join things such as Twitter and Linkedin. The association world is slowly starting to embrace social media, and it is truly a hot topic. Right now, the younger association folks are on it, with select senior staff embracing it. I see it becoming just like it is in the PR world – the common job bond we have lets us have conversations with those we might never have connected with. Asking questions that relate to the field brings everyone out of the woodwork and discussing one of the things we feel the most passionate about. I have found mentors in great PR pros such as @arikhanson, @dmullen, @rockstarjen, @vargasl, @shonali, @vedo, @morate, @quePR – and even someone my own age, @patrickrevans. For us, the respect is completely mutual, and we thrive on what we learn from one another. From there, these people have introduced me to so many great folks, ones who I learn from everyday. In the association world, I have gotten to connect with great minds such as @lindydreyer, @glorysgirl, @maddiegrant, @bkmcae and @CynthiaDAmour…. Plus my CEO, @pdonahoo. Embrace social media, it can really only benefit you. Even when a mistake is made or you say something you regret, that level of transparency plays into how much respect you receive.

What other things can we do to bridge the generation gap?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2009 12:24 am

    You make some good suggestions here, Lauren. And I love that saying you were 28 helped you be taken more seriously! Too funny – I actually am 28 now and still find myself being very vague about my age and trying to get people to think I’m older so that I have more credibility. So it may be a tactic that you have to continue using for a while! 🙂

    One thing I would add is that while it can take a lot of effort to build up your credibility and get older generations to take you seriously, it can take no time at all to destroy all of that. I have seen a few young professionals get too tipsy at corporate events, or get caught up in office politics and rumor mills and suddenly they’re viewed as naive, immature, irresponsible, etc. Obviously this doesn’t mean you can’t be fun, but it’s just something to be cognizant of!

  2. February 27, 2009 1:49 am

    This is a great article. I was looking at it through different eyes, but it fits for what I’m doing too. . Amazing insight. I love the line often given “This is not how we usually done.” I deal with this often. Good ideas on getting ahead and bridging that gap.

  3. February 27, 2009 5:51 am

    As usual, you bring up a number of good points Lauren.

    #3–Growing is part of the maturation process of any young PR professional. And working with a mentor is one great way to help foster that process. But, there are other ways to spur your growth and prove you belong at the big table. Speak up in meetings. Ask to take on additional work/projects. And throw out new ideas–even if no one’s asking for them (best time to throw them out, in my opinion). All this will prove to management you’re a whole heck of a lot more than just your age. Remember, we all have value to add.

    #4–One of the true secrets of networking (and something, by the way, you do very well Lauren). I would only argue you don’t want to be too loose with your compliments. Pick your spots. It will pay off. After all, as Lauren says, who doesn’t like to hear that they’re a rock star from time to time?

    #5-I have strong feelings around this topic. For me, it comes down to one key point. In my experience, there are two types of professionals: those that want to manage and control and those that want to lead, share and collaborate. The closer you can stay to folks in that latter category, the better. Think about Sarah Evans. Here’s someone who’s clearly spent a tremendous amount of time and energy building journchat into something great, right? Then she goes out and offers up the moderator role to just about anyone last week. What a great opportunity for @standupkid, btw. But, what an even better move by Sarah to share the grand stage. She didn’t care about age. All she cared about was your ability to take a risk and prove you belong. Sarah is someone who inspires me each and every day. Or, Amber Naslund. Here’s someone with an incredibly powerful personal brand. But, she’s always willing to listen, share and connect. She’s even looks for guest posters on her blog (see Scott Hepburn’s latest post). Amber doesn’t care how old folks are that engage her–she’s just out here to learn, share and grow (a great model, by the way). These are the folks you want to connect with and learn from–not those that are more concerned with “managing your performance” and focusing on your age instead of the value you bring to the organization. Stay away from that group. Stick with the Sarah and Amber’s of the world.

    Great post, Lauren. As usual, you got me thinking (and at 11:30 pm after 12 hours of #snowmageddon, no less!)

    @arikhanson

  4. February 27, 2009 1:07 pm

    Amy – Great point about the younger generation being a little bit more free with their alcohol. I think it’s hard to remember sometimes that we are still in a corporate setting, and I know many of us have a professional personality and our personal one. Respect and Credibility can be destroyed at the drop of a hat. I have also noticed a difference in corporate/association events v. PR agency. Maybe because it’s client-based v. you work for the company?

    Brian – Thanks for reading! What kind of eyes were you looking at it through? I based it off an association discussion, but I really hope that other industries can use it and gain from it.

    Arik – That comment is the main reason I consider you to be one of my top mentors – you take my ideas and push it even further. What I was trying to get at in the beginning of the post is that we have these ideas, but how do we bring them to the table? What would you suggest is a good way to do that? My younger colleagues and I have found that others turn their nose up at our ideas because of our age and experience, and really don’t listen. I am fortunate to have a CEO that values all ideas, and a boss who takes my ideas and puts them into action. Most don’t have that luxury, unfortunately.

    Great point on the compliments. It can’t be forced, and it really needs to be at the right time. It’s something that I think can come naturally for some, but it can also be a great tool – that is why networking is so successful. Sarah and Amber are two people I strive to be like daily – they are great examples of how you can listen and gain new ideas – I just wish there were more of them. I think once there are, we might start to bridge the “gap.”

    GREAT Comment, Arik.

  5. Leah permalink
    February 27, 2009 1:49 pm

    I often notice enthusiastic people in the workplace who are loaded with ideas, and its great. The barrier? They don’t stop to get the back story.

    If you want people to take your ideas seriously, dig deeper.

    1. Who are the true stakeholders?
    2. What’s going on below the surface? Are there greater issues at stake? Are the issues delicate?
    3. Have you done a “stakeholders audit?” If you have an idea, make a point of having a face to face chat with every department head that could remotely be impacted. You may find that they are more impacted than you realize. Starter list: HR, Legal, Operations.
    4. In the early stages of your “stakeholder audit” start with the issue, not the solution. “I’ve noticed that X is going on.” Then ask THEM for what THEY’D suggest.
    4.1 Once you’ve gathered all of their suggestions, consider whether you’d change your idea.
    4.2 If you still think your idea holds water, get all the stakeholders into a room and have the following discussion:
    “I’ve gathered you here today because we all care about X. Some of you have concerns because of….” Show that you’ve listened. Relay your findings back to the team.
    THEN you will have set the stage to suggest YOUR idea.
    By this time, you will have flushed out most of the opposing views, and you’ll be ready to address them.
    5. The art of being heard is in first hearing others.
    6. People don’t care what you know until they know you care.

  6. February 27, 2009 1:53 pm

    Great post Lauren! It is a great follow up to our conversation. I really like how practical and useful your suggestions are ex: the 5 business cards point. It keeps you moving, you have a goal to accomplish and it is obtainable.

  7. February 27, 2009 2:13 pm

    Leah – Wow! Those are some great suggestions. The strategy you laid out only emphasizes why it is important to know everything you can before presenting an idea. I think that sometimes I get an idea in my head that I think is so great….. that I don’t stop to think it the entire way through. Presenting the facts shows that the idea has been prepared and carefully thought through.

    Steff – Glad you liked it! The conversation we had at Great Ideas was so interesting and informative – I feel so lucky to have 25 people (yes, I include you in this Mom 🙂 that have the same passion and leadership brains for the association world.

  8. February 27, 2009 3:11 pm

    Lauren,

    What a thought-provoking post. I think there’s something to be said for giving into one’s own stereotypes. In other words, if you’re focused heavily on how other people are perceiving you, you’re probably putting your energy in the wrong place.

    My entire career, I’ve ignored the age issue in favor of making valuable contributions. (I’m 33 now). But the trick? Valuable doesn’t always mean groundbreaking. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary or earthshattering. Sometimes, valuable is being the person that’s willing to work a little harder, pick up the job that no one else wants to do, volunteer to be part of a team and contribute to learn and share with others. Big ideas are great, but the small stuff is sometimes what moves the ball forward.

    Be willing to get your hands dirty. Contribute your ideas, but even better, help others figure out how to make THEIR ideas work. Often times, the way to stand out – regardless of your generation and certainly in spite of it – is to be involved in making impactful contributions, whether they’re your ideas or someone else’s. The traits I admire – initiative, trustworthiness, creativity, tenacity – are a function of *who* you are and the values you hold, and have zero to do with what age is on your driver’s license. 🙂

    Keep doing what you’re doing. The attitude is everything.

    Cheers,
    Amber

  9. February 27, 2009 3:29 pm

    Amber,

    You hit so many great points right on the head. I think the conception is that everything needs to be “bigger and better” but sometimes the best ideas are ones that just make sense. Being a team player and doing whatever you can to make the organization better as a whole is a great perspective to have. I love where you talk about the traits you admire, and how they are a function of who you are, not the age on your license.

    I’ve learned so much just by reading your tweets and your blog – You are a constant inspiration to me. Thank you so much for reading!

  10. February 27, 2009 4:02 pm

    Great post Lauren,
    It’ s so unfortunate to hear of times when more experienced pros/leaders take a dismissive attitude toward those who will lead down the road. Given the ongoing changes in communications, those in leadership roles should be listening closely to great young people with new ideas. “The way it’s usually done” is disappearing rapidly- and sometimes for good reason.

    There are differences between generations and I think those in their 20’s now do need to be very aware of how they present themselves (professionalism and work ethic in particular) because that is what can really cause tension. If you present yourself well and current execs feel confident that you won’t harm the company/client image, then I think you may get some more leeway with presenting broader initiatives.

    However, it’s upon existing leadership to come around and make a genuine effort to engage more with the new communications channels available to us. Looking at how people like to get their information is essential and older generations must understand that Gen Y prefers a more direct targeted connection that is personal.

    It’s going to be a lot of work for both ends of the spectrum but discussion like this and your efforts will make sure it happens.

    Couple suggestions-
    Young pros: look for professionals who are willing to help you navigate the sometimes tricky waters of selling up the ladder.

    Seek mentors who are interested and willing to help. They’re out there and many of us who’ve done this a while really like working with younger staff because it keeps us excited about our profession.

    Pros:
    Be sure to work on this type of re-investment. If you want keep your own future secure, be sure you’re working with the best and brightest.

    Stay current and demonstrate the qualities it takes to be a leader: Listen, learn, and show a commitment to your profession.

    You’re doing great Lauren and are a wonderful example of a young leader and it’s a privilege to learn from you.

    -Dave

  11. February 27, 2009 8:30 pm

    Lauren,

    Wow, great post and equally great comments. I can relate to so many of the points that have been brought up and I’m not even out of college yet. There are definitely a lot of boundaries that have to be overcome before we can truly bridge this gap.

    I speak a lot about my summer internship experience and how amazing the people at Ruder Finn Interactive were at being receptive and supportive of my ideas. The person I worked closest with was Yan Shikhvarger. He was always receptive to my ideas and even let me take on projects on my own after seeing that I was capable enough to do so.

    A big aspect that I found however is how willing you are to take on such ideas and projects. There are so many bright young professionals that have great ideas and capabilities but that only goes so far. Authority has been drilled into us for as long as we can remember, and I feel as though many young professionals sometimes doubt themselves when it comes to contributing to an idea. Some of the other interns that I worked with only did the tedious tasks that were handed to them and never went out and sought responsibility. They have it embedded in them that because they are younger, their contributions are not equal to that of older professionals, even if the older professionals are open to their ideas.

    A big step in bridging the gap is to break this mindset. Younger professionals have to realize that their ideas are just as good as anyone that is older than they are, and older professionals have to encourage them to do so.

    There has to be a level of respect for those that are more experienced by younger professionals and respect for a different mentality by older professionals but that shouldn’t establish creative authority. Creative authority shouldn’t exist.

    Dave

  12. February 27, 2009 8:39 pm

    Again, nicely done Lauren!

    I have two initial reactions to your post:

    1) Of course, everyone (especially industry vets who have invested the blood, sweat and tears) wants to be appreciated and told how great they are. I think that this sort of flattery can take younger people some of the way to the goal of changing a generational stereotype, but I think what gets you all the way is simply a genuine interest in someone’s work, background, industry, etc. As I’ve commented before, I really do think PR pros as a whole are very happy to help – they just want to know that they’re not wasting their time on people that don’t really care about or aren’t going to act on what they’re saying. Passing information to younger folks is a two-way street: pros impart knowledge, and students ask, listen and learn. The best mentor/mentee relationships are built on this, and the more of them that can be struck between the generations, the better opinion the more senior members of the business will have of the junior ones. One step further: the more genuine interest the younger generation shows in the work and experience of the older generation, the better their impressions of each other will be.

    2) As I wrote in #1, this process is a two-way street. This genuine interest needs to go both ways; the onus is also very much on the senior generation to approach and engage the younger folks with an open mind and an open heart, and let the resulting conversation determine their impression of that person.

    Thanks for taking this forward!

  13. February 27, 2009 11:54 pm

    Love your passion and insights, whether on networking or hispanic marketing (thanks again). We need more thoughtful, articulate PR practionners in our fold. Keep it up!

  14. February 28, 2009 12:38 am

    Thanks for great post Lauren. Since I am one of the gray hairs ( I actually prefer the “salt and pepper” description, seems much more…dignified :-D) I would echo and build on Leah’s and Dave’s thoughts:

    My small off ice staff is split nicely: 30 and under, 40 and older. While I can’t generalize 100%, my peer group seems slower to make decisions, agonize over details, goes over issues over and over again, has personal issues when computers go awry. The younger crowd jumps to conclusions, doesn’t think things through, is always on their cell phones or IM, and are simply loud and boisterous. How the heck are we to get along??

    OK, only kidding – I’m describing the two groups through each other’s eyes. It’s certainly a two way street that’s just a bit too narrow to easily pass each with out an occasional bump. OTOH it’s what makes life fun, right?

    One last thing to add onto your list; respect. As a boss, I really do respect the intensity and fluidity of youth; of the energy it brings to an office environment. And, I respect that my older staff bring a wealth of experience and seasoning that helps to make for a critical thinking office. The combination of the two sides makes for very interesting days!

  15. February 28, 2009 1:12 pm

    Thanks, Mark! You challenge me everyday to be a better PR pro. You rock. 🙂

    Art – Great point about how we many view each other. It might seem a little extreme, but that is what sets up the bridge – different viewpoints and not being able to meet in the middle. I think you are right that respect can go such a long way – if you have the respect of your boss and your peers, people are going to listen to you over the goober who just spouts off anything at any random moment.

    Thanks for reading!

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