The young man approached the lobby of the New York offices of a progressive technology company with a sense of confidence that was partly based on belief in himself coupled with the knowledge that he and others of his generation were capable of changing the world. This job interview was not in a technical area of the company, but he grew up surrounded by technology and this place was acclaimed to be a culture of innovation from top to bottom. As it happens too often, the CEO ousted an inventive founder of the company to replace a seat-of-the-pants garage mentality with a proven model of process, structure, and business acumen. It was the best of all worlds… a dream-come-true opportunity. Business forecasters predicted a bright future for anyone who hitched their wagon to this rising star.
The interviews went well, or so he thought. The young man spoke in vivid detail of his passions and vision of adding value through his education, knowledge of technology, and work experience. After the candidate left the building, the team adjourned behind closed doors. They discussed how much of a disruption this personality would be to the existing mix. He had left some of the interviewers feeling insulted and perhaps a little confused. He inferred… no actually insisted… that even the non-technical units of the organization needed to be tech savvy to further the company mission. The unanimous decision was a resounding “No!” It would be easier to hire someone more like them than to go with a young upstart with radical ideas.
Where has your mind taken you so far with this story? Are you thinking about how the stereotypes of millennials are unfair? In your mind’s eye do you see cultural stagnation in a company destined to fail? Here is a little more detail that may blow away some of the fog: That young man was me 25 years ago, the company was Apple, and the interview was in an HR department where people were not technology minded. With perfect 20/20 hindsight, I probably should not have mentioned that I would never hire anyone in HR that was afraid of using the latest technology! Instead of proving my expertise as I had intended, it served to point out that I was, well… different. Today I am happy that I didn’t get a job where I would have failed miserably. I acted on my concept of the culture without really understanding. I never considered that I might also have to adapt. I was also clueless about how to actually steer the cultural change I felt was needed.
There is a term for people that only see things through their own eyes – ethnocentrism: seeing the world from your own perspective to the exclusion of other perspectives. It is not only common in discussing generational differences it is inevitable. At the time of this interview, Gen-X was called the “Baby Bust Generation” simply to differentiate them from the already-named Baby Boomers. The word millennial had something to do with years and not people. I represented the young generation of boomers-with-attitudes setting out to conquer the world. My pilot light had been lit by technology and I was going to use it to set the world on fire. Crossing over from engineering into HR, targeting Apple as a place to carve out my career seemed to be logical, but imagine my disappointment when the people I met were virtually computer illiterate. Imagine their disappointment with me! Not only did I miss the point, I strutted away in full arrogant plumage wondering why I had wasted my time. How dare they get in my way! I am young, vibrant, smart, and know it all! Time passes. Apple survived; so did I.
As a result of this experience and countless others, my call to action today is for all generations to be open-minded about learning from others. When I challenge people perpetuating generational stereotypes… whether intentional or just stupid prejudice… it is hopefully not a sign that I am mired in my generation’s swamp of bias. We should all be focused on cross-generational communication for the betterment of everyone. This is the only way to erase stereotypical boundaries, identify organizational gaps, and engage everyone to pull together. Repeat after me: “Share your ideas honestly with me and I’ll share mine with you. If we disagree, let’s at least agree that it has to do with the whole body of human experience and is not solely dictated by the age of the thinker.”
By the way, my generation was the most cocky, arrogant, and foolish of all times. I hope everyone can admit that about their own generation when they look back.