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Bridging the Generational Gap

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Ricky Stephenson never really had to worry about an older boss treating him like “the new kid.” After all, he started his own business at age 20.

Still, Stephenson—now the CEO of Car Concepts Inc., which runs four repair shops in the Dallas area—remembers what it felt like to be starting out in the industry, and he sees it now in his own son.

“Well, using my son as an example, he graduated from a technical program in Oklahoma and he went to work at our Irving  (Texas) location,” Stephenson says. “And he thought he’d jump right in as a full-fledged technician. That’s not the way it works. When you’re young, you want it all right away, and you want to prove yourself right away.”

That desire can often come off as “entitled” to owners and managers of an older generation. They may watch younger employees hop between jobs and see it as a lack of willingness to put in the hard work.

And those younger employees, they often see their seniors as being stuck in their ways, workaholics and unable to adapt to a changing industry.

“The reality is that we have a very diverse workforce today, and people struggle to bring those generations together and manage them effectively,” says Bill Haas, owner of Haas Consulting LLC and a certified Automotive Management Institute instructor.

Understanding each generation—their mindset, desires and goals—is the first step to better managing them. Haas says once you gain that understanding, you can learn to differentiate your management style and, in the end, bridge that gap between employees.

The New Golden Rule

It might not jive with what everyone learned in Sunday school, but Haas has a new golden rule for managers: Treat others as they want to be treated.

“It’s really that simple: You just can’t apply what works for some to everyone,” Haas says. “If you know there’s a group over here that wants to be rewarded financially, then that should be the goal for some. If there’s another group over here that wants to be rewarded by flexible time, that should be the reward for them meeting their goals.”

Of course, first you have to understand your employees. Here’s a look at the three main generational groups in the workforce today, their general tendencies and how to best manage each of them.

The Baby Boomers

(born 1946–1964)

The profile: Being the group that came immediately following World War II, they were the ones set up by their parents to “live the American Dream,” says Haas, a Boomer himself.

“For most of us, our parents grew up struggling, through war or gas rationing or the Depression, and we were told we’d have it better than anyone before us,” he says.

It sent a message of hard work paying off. And, Haas says, this group was instilled with the pattern of putting in your dues and getting yours in the end.

Many believed this generation would begin retiring over the past few years, but the economic crisis that dwindled many people’s retirement investments has made that difficult.

Management tips: Haas says the Boomer generation is driven more by rewards in their work. They want a clear understanding of the work requirements, and they expect to be compensated adequately once it’s completed.

“If I did something outstanding in my work and you’re happy with my performance, I want you to recognize me for it,” he says. “It can be going home with a raise, a promotion or simply being recognized for my work in front of
my peers.”

Stephenson, who is also a Boomer, says that in his shops, his company rewards long-time employees with equity in the company at a three-year vesting point. “It shows people you’re invested in them as much as they are in the company,” he says. “We’ve found that to be an effective way to reward people.”

Also, Stephenson says that with older employees, time off to enjoy hobbies or to spend extra days with family can be a great motivator.

Generation X

(born 1965–1981)

The profile: What some people call the “Latchkey” generation, Generation X was the first to predominantly grow up in households where both parents worked. They’re independent, they’re highly educated (60 percent went to college; 29 percent have bachelor’s degrees), and they are also the smallest of the three groups.

Also, because they grew up in a time of technological innovation, they tend to adjust very well to new situations and new procedures in a shop.

“These are people that grew up as kids and came home to an empty house,” Haas says. “They did their homework, their chores, all of it on their own, unsupervised and got it done.”

That’s how they’re often found in the workplace, as well, Haas says: They take tasks and run, and they prefer their independence.

Management tips: Haas says this is not a generation to be micromanaged. If given the space to get work done, they will be much more effective. They’re not as interested in public praise or titles. Instead, Haas suggests rewards centering more on time.

“This is certainly a group that values their time and space,” Haas says. “If you try to hover over the shoulder of a Generation X and look after every little thing they do, they’re not going to be a good employee for you.”

Millennial Generation or Gen. Y

(born 1982–2000)

The profile: Almost twice the size of Generation X, the Millennial Generation has grown up in a time of immediacy. Information is at their fingertips at all times, and often, they want immediate feedback.

“We have to remember where that group came from,” Haas says. “When they were in school, even in grade school and high school, when they take a test when did they get their scores? Online and immediately. They could take a test at 10 in the morning, and at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, those scores are online. They expect the same kind of thing now in the environment they work in. It should be instantaneous.”

Millennials also tend to be multi-taskers, having grown up used to short bursts of entertainment from the Internet, TV and, now, smart phones.

Management tips: Give feedback, and give it often.

“You have to be prepared to tell them how they’re doing, and later on that day, you’ll need to tell them how they did again, or they’ll be at your shirt sleeve later in the day asking, ‘How am I doing? Is everything OK?’ They just want feedback and they want it instantaneously,” Haas says.

Stephenson sees a strong desire to prove themselves, as well, despite what some stereotypes may be about their indifference to hard work. They want success as quickly as they can get it, he says, and helping them see the path to get there is a key to turning them into a successful, long-term employee.

“We have the most turnover in our younger employees,” he says, “and it’s hard to find ways from keeping them from leaving just for 50 cents more an hour. What we try to do is show them the benefits beyond pay: the experience they get, the training, the amount of cars they work on. It’s hard to see down the road when you’re that young, and sometimes, they need a little help.”

Stephenson’s shops all do regular individual meetings with his staff to make sure they’re all on the same page and satisfied (on both sides) with how the employee’s work is progressing.

Pick out the Positives

An easy way to see the difference in generations, Haas says, is to look at how a manager reacts to reading a résumé. He says Boomers like himself will often see a résumé from an employee who bounced around and immediately disregard the person as a candidate for
the position.

“Baby Boomer employers will say there’s no stability for this person at all. They’ll say, ‘Wow, he’s only 35 and he’s had 10 jobs already,’” he says. “But we don’t know why they’ve had 10 jobs. There could be a lot of really good reasons for it, or it could be because everyone is trying to manage them the way they manage everyone else for the last 20, 30, 50 years.”

Haas says managers need to play off the positives of each generation and use those skills and experiences to help their businesses become stronger.

“Sometimes, we have to get beyond that stereotype that we created for ourselves,” he says. “People are going to do things differently, and we have to use that to the shop’s advantage.” 

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