As director of International Business Machine’s search and content-discovery software, Aaron Brown supervises a team of six people. Because they include employees who span four decades in age and havework experience of between three and 30 years, he has had to use multiple management styles to direct the small group.
Brown, 31 years old, approaches a 25-year company veteran who was the group’s former boss with deference and far more formality than he does the twentysomethings on his staff, assuring her that her knowledge and loyalty are valued. He motivates a baby boomer with many years of experience at IBM by praising her corporate savvy and willingness to put in long hours and to go the extra mile. And he taps into the technological creativity of a staffer in his twenties while being sure to talk often about his work and praise him almost every day for something he has done.
Managers, already stretched by a faster, more competitive and global business landscape, have an additional challenge: overseeing multigenerational staff with employees who have different expectations and various ways of working. “We’re recognizing that we need to do novel things to attract talent of all ages, and need managers who accept their differences,” says Subha Barry, managing director and head of diversity and inclusion at Merrill Lynch.
Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, still make up the majority of US employees, but increasingly they’re being supervised by or working closely with Generation Xers, born between 1965 and 1977, and are joined by younger “millennials”, or Gen Y employees, the newest additions to staffs. And there are still many “traditionalists” on board, as those in their mid-60s are called. Motivating each of these generations to work together requires managers to relinquish a one-style-fits-all approach to their subordinates.
When Merrill Lynch, which has begun offering training to managers to meet this challenge, asked baby-boomer supervisors if they’d be willing to give employees time off if they had a medical problem, 99% said yes, says Deborah Tsai-Munster, director of diversity and inclusion for the company. “But when we asked, ‘Would you give someone a day or an hour off to see a spiritual coach?,’ most people said no and also asked, ‘What is that?’” she adds. “Yet to millennials, health is all about spirituality and having a mind-and-body balance, while Gen X employees say, ‘If you want to retain me, I expect flexible scheduling—and it shouldn’t matter for what purpose.’”
To keep its most talented Gen X employees, Merrill is offering more flexibility even in departments where long hours and face time were once requisites. An equity sales trader now works one day a week from her home, and an equity research team is considering using BlackBerrys to let analysts work from various locations.
To woo millennials—a generation that confers about careers and other big decisions with their protective parents—Merrill launched a pilot parent’s day this summer for minority interns.
Jamelle Arbuthnot, an intern in the real estate investment banking group, invited his parents. They got tours of Merrill’s corporate headquarters in Manhattan and met his bosses. “New York is a lot bigger and very different from where I grew up, so it was comforting for them to see where and who I’d be working with,” says Arbuthnot, a rising senior at University of Texas-Austin who is putting in 80-plus hours a week this summer, standard for investment-banking interns.
IBM’s Brown says he is looking forward to bringing together his staffers of different ages to focus on boosting the company’s search-software business. “Managing such a mix of perspectives is challenging—but also fun and helps us do business,” he says.
He paired his 20-something employee, recruited from a start-up, with a baby boomer for work on a new product. The young employee “has dozens of out-of-the-box ideas and a great sense of, ‘Let’s change the world right now’,” Brown says. By contrast, the baby boomer is more steadfast, “but knows our company’s processes and our sales force”, he adds.
Encouraged by Brown to pool their strengths rather than to get into a tug of war about whose talents were more vital, the two employees got the product launched in a record three months. Brown thinks his own close relationships with several older IBM executives have helped him manage across generations. “Listening and communicating is key to this,” he adds.
Kari Barbar, vice-president of learning for 200,000 employees at IBM’s global technology-services unit, offers different learning venues to different generations. Boomers are accustomed to learning in a classroom with a teacher, she notes, while Generation Xers prefer Web courses to do on their own. Networking-prone millennials enjoy working with others on blogs, says Barbar, a 25-year veteran of IBM.
Still, the company wants boomers to get used to Web-based courses. “Transporting employees who work in very different locations to a training site is pricey,” she says, and disrupts work.
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