4 Ways to Help Different Generations Share Wisdom at Work

“The world is more malleable than you think and it’s waiting for you to hammer it into shape…That’s what this degree of yours is — a blunt instrument. So, go forth and build something with it.” — Bono, singer for U2, 2004 University of Pennsylvania commencement

Right now, commencement speeches are being given, quoted, lauded and judged. Not every speaker will knock it out of the park, but all have the same goal: to impart some wisdom that will hopefully inspire the next generation.

It’s great to receive sage advice on this banner day signaling “adulthood.” But when else do we hear wise adages, aphorisms, and axioms? Shouldn’t we make more room for such guidance and reflection during our working years?

Ask yourself: When was the last time someone seriously “dropped some knowledge” on you? Something that really grabbed your attention? Your imagination? Made you laugh, shed a tear, both? Something that possibly inspired you to, as Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford speech, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.” Hopefully it wasn’t as far back as your college graduation. But, chances are, it wasn’t at work.

After graduation, people still seek this kind of wisdom and inspiration. Millions of Americans watch inspirational talks online, go to conferences, and hire coaches – but they often don’t look in their own workplaces. Yet, wisdom is not in short supply here. There are now five generations working alongside each other – an unprecedented opportunity to learn from such a diverse range of experiences. But there’s not always an obvious path for people to share with and learn from each other. Especially when generations are siloed, both older and younger workers keep their wisdom buried.

We need a new means of intergenerational wisdom sharing. Speeches are one way to do this, but I think companies can create many other avenues to encourage and facilitate the exchange of wisdom. Here are a few steps you can take to galvanize gravitas on a daily basis at work:

Offer mid-morning wisdom talks. Each day, give one employee a platform to share their wisdom, learning, or point of view. I was fortunate enough to address a recent Zappos All-Hands employee meeting and was impressed with the line-level staff who stood up to tell their stories of success and failure. Why not offer a similar platform weekly or monthly as a mid-morning shot of inspiration? Or, what about instituting a daily team huddle where each person shares what they’re focused on for the day? Or maybe try ending a regular team meeting with one member sharing their newest-found wisdom from the past few weeks?

Recognize your “wisdom workers.” You may know the sage souls who offer quiet, invisible productivity to your organization. But what about identifying and publicly recognizing them so they can share that wisdom with a larger audience in the company? On your employee satisfaction surveys, you might ask, “Who in the company – outside of your direct boss or a team member – do you look to for helpful advice?” or “Who in the company is a role model for wisdom?” Once you’ve identified these internal counselors, you can start determining how to leverage their wisdom. For example, why not allow your wisdom workers to spend 20% of their time acting as internal coaches in the company? (As Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb, I allocated one-fifth of my time to employees from all over the organization as a confidante and coach.) Or you can model what Procter and Gamble developed with their “Masters” program, an honor bestowed on those in the global company with decades of internal wisdom who can serve as wise beacons for those newer to the organization.

Develop a mutual mentoring program. Building bridges between generations is most effective when it’s baked into the company’s values, culture, and processes. I’ve found that mutual mentoring – where I’m learning from a Millennial about one topic and they’re learning from me on a different one – accelerates wisdom sharing across an organization. One of the ways companies can foster this kind of relationship is by connecting those just joining the company with “new hire buddies” – employees likely to be from a different generation – tasked with showing them the ropes. Liz Wiseman in her book Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work writes that Intel has created an intranet to provide mentoring matchmaking options across state lines and national boundaries based upon the shared interests of the participants.

Create an Employee Resource Group (ERG) focused on wisdom. Airbnb has seen great connections and support flourish in its Wisdom@Airbnb groups, which are open to any employees over the age of 40 and anyone committed to the goal of an age-friendly workplace. Approximately 90% of Fortune 500 companies have ERGs, but only a tiny fraction have an affinity group expressly serving their older demographic. Bringing your “Modern Elders” together can help you and them leverage their institutional wisdom and insight.

“We have, if we’re lucky, about 30,000 days to play the game of life…trust me…it’s wisdom that will put all the inevitable failures and rejections and disappointments and heartbreaks into perspective.”Arianna Huffington, Vassar College 2015

Last year, I was honored to be invited to give the commencement address to more than 10,000 people at the University of Michigan Stephen M. Ross School for Business. In preparation, I studied NPR’s exhaustive review of commencement speeches dating back to 1774. I tried to incorporate the common themes I noticed – humility, humor, and hugely idealistic ideas for transforming the planet – when I delivered my address. I also offered three questions for undergrads, graduate students, and their families to ponder:

Students: What world-class skills can I offer? Developing these could lead you to your calling.

Leaders: How can I support those I lead to do the best work of their lives here at this company? Helping your employees identify what resources they need to flourish lets them take responsibility for creating organizational and personal solutions.

Everyone: How can I turn fear into curiosity? Adopting a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset lets you see more options, which can help reduce stress and anxiety and boost your resilience.

Get inspired by graduation season. Think about how your company can start institutionalizing wisdom and leveraging it, along with creativity and innovation, for greater inspiration and success.

Chip Conley is a hospitality CEO veteran, the Strategic Advisor for Hospitality and Leadership at Airbnb, and a New York Times bestselling author whose new book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, arrives September 18th,.




Why a Gen-X CEO Hired a Millennial to Help Him Keep a Learning Mindset

It will happen to all of us someday: A younger generation enters the workforce and becomes the most sought-after consumers, and the rest of us feel left behind. One way to keep up is to ask a younger colleague to mentor you. This is especially important when it comes to technology, since the best tools for the job may be ones you haven’t heard about. Ask your younger mentor what trends they’re noticing and what new technologies they’re experimenting with. Your junior coworker can also help you avoid dating yourself. It’s easy for older workers to start saying things like, “Back in my day…,” but that will make you seem less relevant. Ask your mentor to point out when you’re referring to the past too often. It’s better for someone you trust to mention it than for customers or colleagues to secretly think it.

At age 41, I am where I want to be in my career: running my own sales-training business, with enough clients lined up that I can probably live comfortably for the next several years. But I’m in trouble. Every Gen Xer is.

Younger generations are quickly taking over the workforce. They’re also becoming the decision makers and the most hotly pursued consumers. And they grew up with their own set of expectations, their own view of the world.

If I don’t find ways to stay relevant to today’s 20-somethings, I will become a dinosaur in five years, probably less. For all the talk about how younger people desire and need learning experiences, the opposite is also true: The rest of us need to learn from them — and from how they learn.

That’s why, after years of operating without support staff (it’s been just me and my COO), I’ve recently hired a 24-year-old, Morgan, and given him the title of Director of Execution and Evolution. I told him his job is to help me grow my business and my mind. Here are a few things I’m learning from him.

Stop playing catch-up with technology. I’ve worked to keep up with changes in technology, specifically sales technology, by talking with my peers and always being open to trying new things that others recommend. But Morgan takes a different approach. He isn’t just keeping up — he stays ahead of the trends by proactively seeking out these new technologies himself and experimenting with them to see what effects they have on productivity, efficiency, and quality. That allows him to find the best tools for the jobs at hand, not just the tools he happens to hear about.

Get with the times. When I was younger, I used to hate how most sales trainers spoke. It’s why I initially didn’t want to become one. Their stories came across like, “Back in my day, we used to…” And they’d tell one stale story after another.

But now I understand how that happens. When you do something year after year, it’s natural to fall into that pattern. Your stories become your shtick. And if I’m not careful, I’ll become that guy. Recently, I was showing a prospect what I thought was a great example of an email exchange. But the date on it was from 2014. For people Morgan’s age, that’s looking back at a time when they were still in college, before they spent three years in the working world. It’s ancient history.

I’ve asked Morgan to help me avoid dating myself. I want him to be the one to tell me, “Hold on, old man” — so that trainees in my courses won’t secretly be thinking that.

Offer faster, individualized learning. Traditionally, I’ve geared my training toward groups rather than individuals, showing entire sales teams various tips and techniques of the trade. But the pace of business has changed — and, Morgan reminds me, so have learners’ expectations. Every minute counts, and not everyone on a sales staff (or in any function) wants to learn exactly the same things. Each individual has different strengths and weaknesses. People aren’t looking to waste their time sitting through long explanations that don’t necessarily apply to them. They’re able to get just what they need from modular courses and video tutorials online, and they’ve come to expect the same from live instruction.

To stay relevant to the people taking my courses, I’ve been evolving my approach and trying to answer each of their questions in a targeted way without alienating others in the room. I’m also starting to tailor the content itself. For one trainee, that might mean providing a structured process to follow. For someone else, it might mean sharing a technique that addresses a specific challenge they face. I know my industry is moving away from multiday on-site training, and more into “just-in-time” learning, and Morgan is going to be a big part of helping me stay on top of that trend.

Shelve the ego — and communicate. This whole idea of learning from younger employees, sometimes referred to as “reverse mentoring,” can create tricky dynamics. Morgan, after all, works for me. I’m the boss. How can he feel comfortable as the teacher? How can I feel comfortable as the student?

When I tell my peers what I’m learning from Morgan, I explain that it requires having the confidence to be humble about the knowledge or skills I need to gain. We also rely on open, regular communication to keep the learning flowing freely in both directions. We have a set time to speak every Monday to discuss our goals and expectations, and we do summary emails every Friday to capture what we have learned throughout the week. In between, we drop each other messages and have quick chats. All these exchanges allow us to stay on top of things and make adjustments on the fly so that we can continue to get better every day.

I told Morgan that he can tell me anything about my areas for improvement, and he’s taking me up on that. For example, I grew up and still live in a Microsoft world (PC, Word, Excel, PowerPoint), which Morgan’s generation views as archaic. So he’s teaching me (forcing me) to use Google Docs, Slack, and other collaborative tools, not only to improve our communication but also to help me work more effectively with others in his cohort and to be more relevant in their eyes. I’m still holding on to my PC, but I can meet them where they are.

Morgan is learning from me, too, of course. For example, I’ve encouraged him to remove weak filler words from his communications so that his messages are clearer and have a stronger impact. And I’m teaching him what it takes to build and run a business — from finances to operations to projections.

This is very much a symbiotic exchange, but the only reason I benefit from it is that I’m willing to accept that Morgan can teach me a thing or two. With both of us focused on continual improvement and learning from each other, we’re much better equipped for the future.

John Barrows is the founder of JBarrows Sales Training. He previously ran sales and marketing for the IT services firm Thrive Networks, which was sold to Staples.