4 Ways to Help Different Generations Share Wisdom at Work

by Chip Conley,
Republished from Harvard Business Review, May 18, 2018

“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.

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