Leading a high performing Intergenerational-Generational Legal Operations Workforce

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With excerpts from “The Ten Questions to Ask Yourself to Influence Your Future”, as Presented by Dr. Zachary Walker, Educator, Author, and International Speaker, University College London Institute of Education at the CLOC 2020 London Institute.  He can be contacted on LinkedIn or through his website at www.drzacharywalker.com.

One of the most complicated tasks facing companies today is the challenge of aligning the cultures and expectations of multiple generations in their organization. Legal departments are not immune to these challenges. Like others, legal is often composed of multiple generational influences from Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials. Gen Z is just starting to enter the workforce which brings in yet another shift in workplace dynamics. Today’s leaders need to manage the differences and similarities between four to six generations while integrating them into a cohesive, functional, high-performing team.

Each person comes with a different set of expectations and definitions of loyalty, ethics, and skills. Leaders need to shift to make the most of these energies and skill sets that bring incredible potential to both the department and company. The generation into which one is born is an important determinant of these personal characteristics. Of course, each individual is different – however, generational trends tend to shape ideas on “big picture” issues such as the value of teamwork, workplace expectations, and the relationship between the individual and society, and each generation tends to share similar experiences as a result of growing up at the same time.

A 2014 Harvard Business Review article exclaimed that “for the first time in history, five generations will soon be working side by side.” It continued:

“The Boomer mystified by Facebook; the Millennial who wear flip-flops in the office; the Traditionalist (born prior to 1946) who seemingly won’t ever retire; the cynical Gen Xer who’s only out for himself; and the Gen 2020er [known as Gen Z today] – born after 1997- who appears surgically attached to her smartphone.”

If you’ve attended a seminar or conference on this topic, you may have learned that these stereotypes are not valid and that all generations can and do share common values and goals.  Still, generational tensions exist within our multi-generational workforces and it’s our job to help our employees recognize and respect the skill sets that each generation brings to the table.

The U.S. Government projects the number of workers over the age of 75 will double in the next decade. In many cases, workers continue to work longer because they can’t afford to retire when they reach retirement age. And many workers in the legal profession choose to work longer because they enjoy their work and value their relationships with their coworkers. 

Generation Z, our youngest generation of workers, is just entering the workforce. By 2026, that group will surpass the number of Millennials (who are now the largest) in the workforce. These two generations will define the future of work.  Whether a 35-year-old manager managing a Boomer workforce and Gen X workforce or a 65- year-old manager managing a Gen Y and Millennial workforce, or somewhere in between, it is incumbent upon leaders and managers to know who they lead. To be successful, we will have to understand what each generation wants out of their jobs and how they envision work.

Companies that shift to strike a multi-generation allegiance will have an efficiency advantage over others that don’t. A multi-generational team offers a diverse way of looking at a project or problem. Leading them can be both a challenge and an opportunity. Understanding who they are is key.

Leading an Inter-Generational Workforce

In January 2020, the CLOC London Institute ended its educational conference with a session led by Dr. Zachary Walker from the University College London. Dr. Walker’s session was one of the highest rated sessions during the Institute. His current work focuses on Generation Z, educational neuroscience and high performance leadership.

During his session, Dr. Walker explained a few of the traits of generational groups that are, or will be, employed by your organization in the future and challenged everyone to be willing to adapt their leadership style accordingly. 

Generation Z: (Born 1996 – 2015)

According to Statista, Gen Z represents 24% of the workforce worldwide. Gen Z grew up in households that were significantly affected by 911 and the 2008 recession. As a result, financial security and stability are vital to them.

Gen Z’ers are entrepreneurial and ambitious. Surveys show that about half of them want to work for themselves – because they believe they can do “it” better – while half also want to do something that will change the world. They are competitive and financially driven. They have expectations of advancing in their roles quickly and being rewarded financially. This group is prone to burn-out, so they will need your assistance to achieve work-life “harmony.”

Gen Z values authenticity and meaningful interactions. Although they are digitally astute, they prefer to communicate face-to-face and work collaboratively. Gen Z craves feedback in real-time. Waiting until their annual evaluation to provide negative feedback will likely offend them. They want mentorship and constant feedback. They appreciate it and value it.

They value inclusion, social justice, diversity, and fairness. Dr. Walker noted organizations that simply aspire to these values would not impress a Gen Z candidate. They are influenced by “Doers.”  Congruence between what organizations say and what they do is absolutely critical to Gen Z.

Millennials or Gen Y: Born 1977 – 1995  

By this year, 2020, Millennials are forecast to comprise half of the American workforce, and by 2025, 75 percent of the global workforce. 

Millennials do not want the life of their parents, who valued work over relationships. They value work-life balance suited to allow them to enjoy their lives outside of work. Work satisfaction and financial stability are essential to Millennials; however, they aspire to strike a healthy balance between work and relationships outside of work.

This generation seeks a first-name basis relationship with their employers. They treat their employers respectfully, but they expect their employer to earn their respect. They enjoy a relaxed work environment where colleagues at various levels of leadership and responsibility can easily talk, joke, and laugh with each other while maintaining the appropriate hierarchical management structure.

Millennials value honesty, are eager to learn, appreciate personal connections, efficiency, and a sense of community.  

Generation X: Born 1965-1976   

According to Statista, Gen X represents 35% of the workforce worldwide.

The income gap between Gen X and Millennials grows wider each year.  Generation X makes more money and spends more money – 11% more than Boomers and 33% more than Millennials. They spend more because they are raising a family and caring for aging parents. The dual responsibility of caring for parents and children puts a high demand on their resources. 

Gen X values freedom and responsibility in the workplace. They are more likely to question authority than their parents and prefer flexibility in work arrangements. They don’t want to be micromanaged.  

Baby Boomers: Born 1946 – 1964 

Baby Boomers represent 6% of the workforce worldwide.

Baby boomers are hard-working – some would say workaholics – and motivated by position, prestige, perks, and money. They are independent, confident, and define themselves by their professional accomplishments. Their parents grew up during the Great Depression, and Boomers grew up under the threat of global nuclear war. They were exposed to protective drills in school in the event of a nuclear attack, lived in households stocked with food and supplies, and knew where they would shelter in the event of a nuclear attack.

A “good worker” was defined as having a strong work ethic and the willingness to “do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Baby Boomers are often critical of younger generations for what they perceive as a lack of work ethic and commitment. 

What does the future of work look like across multiple generations?

The influence of Gen Z and Gen Y is already changing what work looks like. The future of work will value health and wellness, offer flexible workspaces and work locations, emphasize continuous professional development, use technology to create efficiencies, and enable a mobile workforce. According to Dr. Walker, the future of work will include workplace neurodiversity and the use of collective intelligence to solve problems.  

“Neurodiversity is a concept where neurological differences are to be recognized and respected as any other human variation. These differences can include those labeled with Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum, Tourette Syndrome, and others.”

Research suggests that neurodiverse individuals receive, process, and interpret information differently and often solve problems in unconventional ways. These employees are loyal, highly dependable, and adept at fitting into different work cultures.

Collective intelligence (CI) is shared or group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, joint efforts, and competition of many individuals and appears in consensus decision making. Dr. Walker explained it this way:

“[A] group-based approach to harnessing the collective intelligence of people who work together, matching different skills and knowledge sets of internal experts to address future project needs.”

Collaboration is how younger generations prefer to work. As leaders, we are responsible for “upskilling” our employees so that we can build an environment that supports collective thinking to solve problems.

What now? 

Multiple generational organizations are the future and understanding the behaviors and drivers for each generation is critical for success. There are new ways of working every day. Collaboration and communication continue to be two of the most important components in bringing the generations together, especially as the world embraces a work from home mentality. 

Every generation is expressing a need for more flexibility, the opportunity to shift hours—to start their workdays later, or earlier, for example, or put in time at night, if necessary. Work-life balance drives satisfaction for all generations. The similarities in attitudes across generations are striking when it comes to benefits that drive satisfaction.

Multi-generation organizations are here to stay. The key is to foster the intergenerational culture by respecting the varied differences each generation contributes. It also means working as a proactive leader to eliminate strife, find the similarities and strengths and establish clear communication paths to ensure loyalty and success.