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When Leading Today’s Workforce, One Size Does Not Fit All

If CEOs want to be successful in the “OK, Boomer” era, they have to find a way to bridge generational divides.

In recent weeks, the viral quip “OK, Boomer” has exploded from social media memes into a broader national dialogue about how generational differences impact our points of view and the way we interact. For executives, generational differences should be a key consideration in building successful relationships with all stakeholders—from customers to colleagues.

Dealing with tensions that result from change is a significant issue for most leaders, but our company has a unique view as an organization that serves as a bridge between a traditional sector and a disruptor. The accounting industry, like most others, is undergoing rapid transformation. Evolving regulatory standards require that accountants move away from the old methods of doing business and embrace the future, which means marrying traditional methods with technology tools. This has fostered a growing demand for new skill sets and fundamentally reshaped the professional dynamics and culture of the industry. And that’s just the beginning.

The accounting industry is certainly not alone in reckoning with generational shifts and tech-driven disruption. But companies who think “in with the new and out with the old” across the board will make costly errors. Though Millennials have become the largest generation in the labor force, with Generation Z right behind them, older workers continue to offer deep experience and expertise and still reflect sizable amounts of companies’ key purchasing decision makers. To meet the evolving demands of customers, companies must harness the talent of the evolving workforce by rooting out unconscious bias, fostering collaboration and facilitating mentorship.

Avoid unconscious bias in your hiring process

Any executive seeking to recruit new talent should focus on the unique skills and perspectives they can bring to the team and avoid biases that can impact hiring decisions. Executives should take a close look at their processes to ensure consistency and fairness. For some companies, a work sample testing approach may help level the playing field. According to Harvard Business School professor Francesca Gino, administering sample tests when evaluating prospective new hires helps to root out unconscious bias and compare candidates fairly based on their work. By focusing on skill, perspective and judgment, you get a sense for the true value that a professional will bring to your organization.

Create a culture of collaboration

Communication with employees should be a two-way street. When it comes to making employees feel included and valued, listening to their feedback is paramount, regardless of their role in the company. Managers should make themselves available for “office hours” to address employee concerns. In fact, despite stereotypes about a culture of texting and emailing, ServiceNow found that 83% of Generation Z employees prefer to interact with their manager face-to-face. It’s also critical to remember that workplace culture is not just what happens in official meetings and reviews. Generational differences should be considered when planning group activities and employee morale events. For example, not all workers will enjoy an after-work happy hour, while others might not be so enthusiastic about delivering a sales pitch over a round of golf.

Facilitate cross-generational mentoring

The role of mentorship in facilitating cross-generational bonds cannot be understated. Jack Welch popularized the term “reverse mentoring” in 1999 when he paired junior employees with senior executives to teach them about the internet, and the practice continues to benefit firms today. The Financial Times recently spotlighted similar programs at several companies, including P&G, where a leader gained insights from an e-commerce category manager on how Millennials shop differently than their counterparts. Research by AARP found that mentorship directly impacts workers’ perceived value in their intergenerational workforce, and that seven out of 10 workers enjoy working with colleagues from generations other than their own. Successful mentorship fosters the exchange of knowledge and advice between workers and creates benefits on both sides.

What’s more, attracting a multi-generational workforce and establishing strong lines of communication across age groups is essential in delivering exceptional products and service to customers. It is impossible to put customers’ needs at the center of your business if your team does not reflect your customer base. When making decisions that impact the customer experience, having the perspective of a team that represents the customer at each stage of their lifecycle in the room is invaluable.

Inclusion is good business

While the research on the impact of workforce diversity specific to age alone is limited, McKinsey & Company notes a persistent connection between diverse executive teams and industry-leading profitability, suggesting that a culture of inclusion is beneficial to a company’s bottom line.

While many believe that Millennials are job-hoppers, a multigenerational workforce may be part of the key to retaining them. Diversity and inclusion were identified as significant factors in Millennial employees’ plans to stay with a company for more than five years, according to Deloitte’s 2018 Global Millennial Survey.

The numbers don’t lie: firms that can evolve to meet the needs of their rapidly changing employee and customer audiences will be the best positioned to succeed.


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