Intentionally collaborating across boundaries is not just a nice, collegial thing to do: it is a necessity. Intergenerational cross-boundary collaboration in particular has been gaining attention nationally and locally. Developing and connecting the next generations of nonprofit leaders while supporting senior leaders as they mentor, celebrate their legacies and discover their next steps are all essential.
The idea for the Intergenerational Working Group — of which EPIP Philadelphia is a member — began after December 2011, when a cross-generational group of nonprofit staff, leaders and other key stakeholders in the Philadelphia region convened for a day-long conference on intergenerational dialogue. At the same time, The Philadelphia Foundation, with its focus on capacity building in the nonprofit sector, had begun identifying intergenerational issues, as leaders in the baby boomer generation began to retire. The Foundation hosted a meeting with the conference sponsors and EPIP to explore common interests and possibilities. As the conversation kept evolving and as others joined the dialogue, a few themes seemed to be shaping the work: the need for access, intergenerational collaboration and inclusion. Today, the initiative is still growing and continues to refer to itself as The Intergenerational Working Group (IWG).
The IWG is such a special initiative and network that EPIP Philadelphia has harnessed it to elevate the quality of its own programming. At our IWG last meeting, a fabulous Boomer Generation organizational development consultant, Nancy Aronson, and myself, a Millennial Generation Program Officer, worked together to develop an interactive learning lab that allowed our cross-generational group to think about what we call “inter-gen” experiences or practices in organizations.
Several goals and outcomes of inter-gen dialogue were posted at different stations around the room. In this case, our stations were Work/Life Balance, Effective Use of Skills Resources within an Organization, Fostering Young Leadership Development, Meaningful Ways for Retired Baby Boomers to be Involved and Understanding and Resolving Intergenerational Conflicts. With just the 20 or so people in the room, we came together and found that all of us had been touched by examples of successful intergenerational dialogue and were able to document the lessons learned.
A few key stories and the lessons learned are shared below.
I. Understanding and Resolving Intergenerational Conflicts
In one organization, older staff members were annoyed at being cc’ed on too many emails that they felt weren’t relevant to them. Upon receiving emails, those older staff always felt obligated to take some kind of action. Conversely, younger staff really appreciated being cc’ed on emails and would cc older staff managers even if they were not directly affected by the message of the email. Younger staff felt that being cc’ed on emails kept more people aware of what was going on. An intentional conversation about email best practices was scheduled, and both groups came to better understand each other’s perspective.
Lessons from this activity were:
- People are deeply impacted by the times they come of age – in this case, by what the “standard expectations” are for internal communications.
- Generational diversity is often overlooked in organizations, but viewing specific conflicts through this lens can bring insight and understanding.
- Some values may be expressed differently or have different norms depending on one’s generation.
- Much conflict stems from miscommunication and misunderstanding of generational norms. Opening up conversations about generational norms is valuable. Assume nothing – don’t interpret everything through your generational lens only. The real issue could be people, situations, ideas, organization etc.
II. Effective Use of Intergenerational Skills/Resources in an Organization
In another organization, staff developed a personnel manual. Groups focused on such topics as vacation, sick time expectations and dress codes. The working group was intergenerational and the process underscored the value of multiple perspectives, shared decision-making and increased opportunities to lead and be heard.
Yet another organization put together a working team of managers across generations to help inform new processes post-merger. Managers were able to serve as resources/consultants to one and other.
Intentional Sharing/Collaboration across generations:
- Empowers staff in an organization with a flat structure.
- Gives a voice to those who are not always heard.
- Sparks innovation, creates efficiencies.
- Is solution-oriented.
- Shares tangible outcomes.
- Improves morale due to creating a safe space.
III. Older Professionals Handing Off Shared Leadership Opportunities with Younger Professionals
One organization and the board of directors acknowledge that the transition of the founder/ED will need support from an outside consultant. The organization searches for a Deputy Director who will be groomed to become the next Executive Director. The full transition process is scheduled to take around four years. A plan is developed and an outside organizational development consultant manages many difficult conversations and helps navigate healthy conflict during this time of transition.
Key lessons are:
- Trust the commitment of younger people, even if the shape of that commitment looks different.
- Bond across meaningful work first, then hand off responsibilities.
- In planning for successions, join established and incoming leadership together first, then hand off specific responsibilities.
- Develop patience among younger leaders during a slow and intentional leadership transition.
- Expect that your leadership transition will take lot of intention and organizational patience.
- Understand that conflict is inevitable. When the conflict is managed and expressed appropriately, it can be a valuable tool in transforming organizations and people.
IV. Fostering Young Leadership Development (including practical, simple tips)
An Executive Director and activist was stunned to hear that he had been “secretly mentored” by a long-time friend and colleague just before his friend’s death. At that time, the colleague confided to him that he was one of seven “secret mentees.” The Executive Director recognized the value of the support he gained from this relationship and decided to develop his own “secret mentorship” program. He would have secret mentees who he would support and give advice to — as well as secret mentors, people who he would ask out to lunch in order to receive their guidance and opinions.
- Mentorship has implications for the boomer generation by providing them with significant new roles.
- Mentoring can’t be “cookie cutter” and is not always transferrable.
- Mutuality is important – it is important to recognize that both the mentor and the mentee benefit from the relationship.
- Informal mentoring relationships can be just as useful as formal ones.
- Building relationships is key.
- Ethics discussion is really important.
- Mentors need mentors.