Listen. Learn. Lead.
By Matt Echelberry
“Listen. Learn. Lead.”
That is the tagline of Crawford Conversation, a program that will be held twice each year with a different speaker and topic each time. It was initiated last fall by the Crawford Unlimited Leadership Committee (through Crawford: 20/20 Vision). The second session was held Feb. 22 at Lowe Volk Park, sponsored by Hord Livestock.
Pat Hord, co-chair of the CU Lead Committee, welcomed the crowd that day, saying the purpose of Crawford Conversation is to promote leadership development. Hord also introduced the guest speaker for that installment, Dr. Larry Firkins, assistant dean for public engagement and swine extension veterinarian at the University of Illinois, College of Veterinary Medicine.
Firkins’ presentation topic was managing generational expectations. He explained that he became interested in the subject “out of necessity.” He has taught at the University of Illinois for 19 years, but about eight years ago, he said he noticed the response and interaction with his students was beginning to change. He felt a lack of connection with them and wanted to figure out what was different.
After admitting he was biased due to being part of the Baby Boomer generation, Firkins emphasized that the “generational gap” is nothing new. “Every generation that enters the workforce causes stress, frustration and criticism from the generations already employed,” Firkins stated.
However, he said there are specific issues impacting businesses and families that are different than in the past, especially with the rate that technology evolves. It is important to understand the issues and how to address them in order to decrease frustration in the workplace and at home, and to increase productivity and collaboration.
For the purpose of the presentation, Firkins defined each generation with certain characteristics, which are “generalizations as guidelines”—NOT stereotypes.
Veterans (age 67 and older) — lived through economic sacrifices; they are reliable, disciplined and loyal; mentality of “make do or do without”
Boomers (age 50–67) — lived through the Vietnam War, space exploration, civil rights movement; they live to work; mentality of “my kids will have it better.”
Generation X (age 37–49) — lived through corporate layoffs, divorce rate increase; self-reliant and independent
Generation Y, or “Millennials” (age 18–36) — lived through September 11; they are optimistic, tech savvy and work to live.
Firkins filled his presentation with plenty of anecdotes from his teaching experience and his interaction with his two children, both of them Millennials. According to him, understanding some of the differences that separate them from other generations is critical: they are connected 24/7 (via cell phones and social media), used to being engaged and will give everything they’ve got within a set amount of time but their personal life is important.
While older generations often view them as self-entitled, lazy and restless, Firkins emphasized Millennials do have great abilities, but there are intergenerational roadblocks, including different values (one is not superior than the other, just different), a disconnect and a lack of communication.
Because of this, Firkins explained older generations in management positions expect Generation Y to adapt to their values. For example, if the workday begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m., Boomers expect workers to be there at 7 a.m. while Millennials arrive at 7:59. Boomers expect workers to stay until 6, while Millennials leave at 5:03.
He said older generations need to be clear on expectations of Millennials. “It’s not Generation Y’s responsibility to understand the other generations and adapt to them. It’s not the Veteran and Boomer and Generation X’s responsibility to adapt strictly to Generation Y,” he concluded.
There has been a paradigm shift with Millennials, because the world is set up to serve them (as a result of parenting trends) but not the workplace. Firkins said this creates situational blindness for Millennials because they do not see a difference in the two environments. However, frustration in the workplace is created by a mutual dismissal of abilities.
Firkins went on to explain that people of different generations must understand each other and what makes them different. “Think about what comes natural to you and consider what comes natural to them.”
Each generation brings different contributions to the workforce and understanding the different contributions is helpful in any work environment. Veterans generally offer loyalty, values and discipline, while Boomers have ambition, go the extra mile and are focused. Generation X has adaptability, believes in informality and is focused on a balance between life and work. Generation Y is strong in collaboration, diversity and multi-tasking.
In terms of putting all of it into practice, Firkins advised people need to be willing to adapt, even if the generation ahead of you did not, because the different skills of each generation can be used for collaboration. Also, explore what comes natural to others and capitalize on differences; invest in developing relationships which cause the level of trust to increase; and remember that the current flows in two directions.
While he admitted that overall it will be more difficult for the Boomers to adapt, he said those with the most maturity should be the ones to make the first move because they have the most to lose. Also, he said Millennials genuinely trust older generations, which opens the possibility for mentoring.
“We need people from each generation on the team,” Firkins said. “It might be frustrating, but I promise you the end result is going to be stronger.”