Getting the Best from Each Other

I was born in 1944, a couple of years before the Baby Boom. But my values and my approach to relationships align pretty well with that generation. My challenge as a young professional was to communicate with “the greatest generation,” who didn’t always understand where I was coming from.

In my career, I’ve worked with Generation X, Generation Y, and now with Millennials. It’s been an interesting journey, as each generation has unique characteristics. The success of our work and our firms is deeply dependent on our ability to communicate well across generations. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve learned and observed on this topic.

I’ll start from a point early in my career. In 1972 I was assigned to work as the tenant development coordinator for the Oakland City Center. Both the developer and contractor asked that I attend the Owner/Architect/Contractor meetings each week so I would be familiar with the technology and operations of the building when meeting with tenants. This turned out to be a graduate course in how to take a complex project through design, bidding, buying, and into construction.

The Project Executive from the contractor became a role model for the balance of my career. One of the most important lessons he taught: not everything is urgent, so don’t treat every task the same. Some items were brought out to get everyone thinking about them, with a long-range date by which an answer was necessary. Others, sometimes appearing in the spur of the moment, were urgent and needed action within an hour, a day or two days. I learned that in project leadership, you must understand what is urgent and what can wait. Don’t run a fire drill unless it’s necessary. This project also gave me a feel for a projects pace from design through construction.

I was also privileged early in my career to work within walking distance of a number of my projects.  I would visit one as often as possible during the lunch hour, introduce myself to the subcontractors on the job, and ask them what they thought of our drawings. I wanted to know if we were communicating clearly our intent and, if not, how we might improve our drawings. I was learning from seasoned professionals, who, because my inquiry was genuine, always took the time to guide me.

I’ve tried to model my experiences as I’ve gotten older. Here are some thoughts about how senior members of your firm can convey the wisdom they’ve gained over the years with younger staff:

  • Share willingly what you’ve learned. Don’t just tell a person what to do, tell him or her why to do it that way. Don’t lecture them; share what you know in a positive and collaborative way.
  • Listen well; ask a lot of questions. Don’t just jump in and give the person an answer.
  • Don’t be patronizing or condescending in any way. Show the younger person respect. It will encourage them to continue to seek your advice and to show respect for others.

So what should this younger generation be aware of about themselves as they begin to develop in their careers?

Once I was speaking with a technology executive from Germany during a break at a TED Conference about how dramatically both of our professions had changed with the rapid advancements in technology. I expressed a concern about the difficulty I was having when trying to comment on the work of my younger colleagues. Rather than a floor plan on a large sheet of paper, allowing me to look at the entire project in context, I was dealing with a colleague who had only a small window into the project on the computer screen, making it impossible to understand how the image I was looking at fit connected aspects of the project.

I was amazed by young professionals’ ability to “see” in their minds the entirety of what they were working on while only being able to look at a fraction of the drawing. Perhaps this came from hours of playing complex, multi-layered computer games, a direct simile for what was going on.

My German colleague said, “That’s nothing. I have a more severe problem. These young kids don’t know how to solve a problem as a team. I was frustrated last week when people sitting right next to each other were sending text messages back and forth. In frustration, I called them all into a conference room, sat them down and said we’re not leaving until we solve this together. Within five minutes they were all screaming at one another and charged out of the room to continue with their way of solving a problem – by texting.” They clearly never learned the fine art of face-to-face discussion and negotiation.

So, for you as a young professional on your way into a leadership role, here are some thoughts:

  • Learn to interact with your colleagues, young and old, by inquiry as opposed to command. Explore together what the right answer is. Learn to negotiate.
  • Take advantage of your more seasoned colleagues. They can make you look good.
  • Learn from their hard-earned people skills (those who actually took the time to gain them). A major part of your career path as you develop is your ability to make a decision about whether a conversation should take place face-to-face rather than via e-mail or text.
  • Learn how to keep morale high through each interaction you have with the people around you. Happy and engaged professionals to better work!
  • Learn how and when to say “congratulations” on a job well done. Each of your colleagues reacts differently. Some appreciate recognition in front of others; some are more comfortable if it is delivered in private.

Being aware of and working through your inter-generational communication skills is worth the effort.

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