The challenge of embracing age diversity is building up to be the talent employment issue of the next five years and beyond.
With the pressure for “more, better, faster” with more money at stake and people wanting more control in their work and personal lives when there seems to be increasingly less, inter-generational issues in the workplace are causing more sleepless nights than ever for firm leaders and managers.
Though each generation frequently finds fault with the others’ attitudes and perceived behaviors, it’s not a matter of how we can “fix” one generation or another. They need each other, and there is no choice but to find ways to more than “get along.” The keys are understanding and respect, openness to explore whether there are multiple ways to achieve desired results and productivity, and dialogue – lots of dialogue.
Far from trivial, the issues that divide the generations are structural, behavioral, institutional and individual – usually a combination of these, including:
- Difficulty in communications between older and younger generations.
- How to minimize defections to other firms due to lack of opportunities based on inter-generational issues. Difficulty making room for younger people to move up because the senior ones want to stay and continue to be productive.
- Transferring responsibilities from one generation to another. Senior professionals and executives who won’t let go and have too much of their identity tied up in their positions and their work.
- Partners who would be willing to transition clients to younger people but would be penalized by the compensation system.
- Less than optimum respect and tolerance between older and younger generations because of differences in work and life objectives. Stigmas around granting flexible working arrangements, especially if only granted to “accommodate” parents with young children.
- Structured vs. freelance mentalities.
- “Entitlement” mentality vs. “You need to pay your dues.”
- Professional development and mentoring programs not succeeding because of unwillingness and lack of incentive to spend the time.
- Clients who want to work with partners younger than the current lead client relationship partner. Older professionals reporting to younger practice heads.
Attention needs to be focused on the older as well as the younger generations. The Baby Boomer generation is so large in numbers that members have significant clout, and they will be hard to replace in the workplace with members of a much smaller generation following. On their watch, a lot of the rules changed as they have changed the world in so many ways. The first generation to go for higher education en masse, they are achievers who continually seek intellectual stimulation. They are eager to remain active physically and mentally, and want to keep being productive and contributing to society. Youth-oriented, they have no image of themselves as old and are protective of their self-image. Lastly, as they always have, they want to determine their own destiny.
Whether they like it or not, change is inevitable. It is no longer uncommon for older professionals to report to younger ones. The potential for tension and resistance is clear. Older lawyers feel their experience, judgment, knowledge and maturity isn’t valued enough; and their younger managers don’t think the older professionals take them seriously enough, that their fresh ideas might be dismissed as unproven (no precedent). This plays out in both emotional and financial terms.
However, it presents an opportunity for education and mutual mentoring. Personal behavioral style, which cuts across the generations, can not only be a cause of friction, but also it can bond people if they tend to think and behave in similar patterns, whatever their generation. Leadership needs to emphasize the value of diversity and collaboration. To address the difficulty in communications between older and younger generations, give training to everyone together on personal behavioral style, listening styles and skills, and work expectations. When professional development and mentoring programs are not succeeding because of unwillingness and lack of incentive to spend the time, award special recognition to the people who commit themselves for a given period of time to mentoring and training and fulfill expectations. The role of mentor should be given high respect once again in a firm’s culture.
Let’s look at a few approaches to bridge the multi-generational divides with client focus, flexibility, and appreciation for diversity. (Transitioning planning is an important part of the mix and the subject of several of my articles on its own. See also http://www.nextgeneration-nextdestination.com)
FLEXIBILITY AS A SOLUTION, NOT A PROBLEM
Flexibility is a significant issue. A significant number of Generation X and Y lawyers are refusing to pledge allegiance to the traditional work styles. Senior lawyers don’t want to give younger ones flexibility if they don’t have it too, and most firms don’t allow for flexible work arrangements except for mommies and daddies. In general, Baby Boomers are more work-centric than the generations before or following them. But several surveys in the last few years have revealed that flexibility is their own key concern. The problem is they have no models to show them how productivity will be sustained when allowing non-traditional arrangements and structures. So they resist for themselves and for the younger generations. I have dubbed this “the Baby Boomer Flexibility Paradox.” I believe there are workable solutions with a solid business case. Crafting them will take some time, a lot of dialogue, and some additional administration but will achieve greater engagement and loyalty from an independent-minded and shrinking talent pool.
A large percentage of Gen X and Y lawyers say they would gladly trade some of their compensation for more personal time. (A growing number of Baby Boomers feel the same way.) And several studies have found that people who are “dual-centric” (both work- and family-oriented) prove not only to be happiest, but also the most successful. Boomers are the most work-centric generation, but now they are also the “squeeze generation” and feel they have to balance everything and everyone else – in the workplace and in personal life – a hard place to be.
A lot of fears persist around flexibility, whether flex-time, telecommuting, or flexible staffing. Sometimes there are trust issues that must be surfaced and dealt with.
Flex-time arrangements have not worked in most firms as well as they can because of attitudes and pre-conceived notions held by some supervisors and decision-makers that lead to stigmas, schedule-creep, less desirable work and less likely promotions. The old model doesn’t fit current needs. Firms need to set results-based expectations and measure those results, not hours.
It may seem counter-intuitive that flexibility can improve ties between the generations, but the open discussions necessary to make flexible arrangements of all sorts work can lay a foundation for better productivity and collaboration for everyone.
I believe that to achieve good results the flexible policies need to be open to everyone – or at least everyone after the first year or two. That means senior partners too. Each candidate for flexible work arrangements should be required to submit a business plan covering all aspects of their responsibilities, how they would be covered, and how they should be evaluated. Facilitated dialogues with supervisors and work teams can address all questions, potential resentments and contingency plans. Everyone should be clear on expectations.
KEEP THE COMPASS POINT FOCUSED ON CLIENTS
A best practice for solutions to most problems in a law firm is to focus on what’s best for the clients. When deciding client-oriented generational issues and staffing, look at whether age matters to the individual and for the particular practice area. For example, it stands to reason that for estate planning practices, it is often the older lawyers who have the relationships and are preferred for their sensitivity in handling estates, trusts and wills. However, for mergers and acquisitions, younger lawyers may establish better rapport with young investment bankers. I’ve heard from several lawyers in my transitioning planning case studies that they didn’t like being “the oldest guy in the room,” even though they were successfully working on deals. I suggest it is best to consider the needs of different practices differently, based on solid business plans.
Clients may prefer a team composed of people of diverse ages and other diversity factors. For the sake of consistency they may want senior people to work with whom they have known and trusted for a long time. Or they might prefer fresh viewpoints from the younger generation and young people who can get to know and work with their junior people over the long term. Client’s needs and wants must be a key consideration in staffing and “tenure” decisions.
NOT ALL PROBLEMS ARE GENERATIONAL
Firm leaders must strive for a balanced approach to multi-generational challenges. The goal is inclusiveness. You can’t validly just plug in some generational attributes and be sure you’ve diagnosed a situation correctly. When faced with a problematic situation, it’s important to determine whether the root causes are:
* Generational or life cycle issues;
* Generation/age or personal style differences;
* Position and assumed authority based or generation or personal style based.
Whenever possible, it is necessary to engage people of whatever generation one at a time and treat them as individuals, keeping in mind the framework of the typical characteristics and cultural influences of their generations. I suggest that a 3-prong approach is required:
1- Familiarity with generational characteristics and motivators.
2- Awareness of personal style differences
3- Use of dialogue and collaborative techniques.
Most importantly: Listen carefully to all sides of the issues and identify what the root causes are. Separate the symptoms from the causes. Some issues can be fairly easily resolved with simple steps and better communication. Small successes will begin to reduce tensions. That will enable firms to focus on the tougher issues with more commitment and energy.
Crunch all the relevant numbers on turnover, dissatisfaction and less than optimal productivity to see what lack of attention to the issues discussed in this article are costing. Already causing prickly situations, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg for staffing, training, mentoring and client retention implications. Consider the health and absentee costs of stress. And then estimate the benefits to come from higher attorney engagement, recruitment success and better morale. On balance, taking on the challenge of age diversity is quantifiably worthwhile.
© Phyllis Weiss Haserot
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm working with law and other professional service firms for over 20 years, A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners (*Next Generation, Next Destination*). Phyllis is the author of The Rainmaking Machine” (Thomson/West LegalWorks 2007). firstname.lastname@example.org. URL: http://www.pdcounsel.com
Phyllis Weiss Haserot Practice Development Counsel Consulting/Coach to the Next Generation Author of “The Rainmaking Machine: Marketing, Planning, Strategy and Management”
* Next Generation, Next Destination* * Cross-Generational Conversation*