Friday, September 2, 2011

Cultural Conundrums - a Generational Perspective

At one point in my career if you can believe it I managed the diversity program as an Innovation Leader.  I always remember my good friend Phyllis E. asked me upon meeting me for the first time, "Can I ask you a question...what the heck does diversity have to do with innovation????".  I had met Phyllis (a 40 something year old african american woman who has become a great friend since this question) for about 5 minutes (in fact my beer hadn't even arrived) when this question was given to me. 

My response...I looked back with a smile and said, "I have little to no idea, but we are sure as heck going to find out..."

Since that day, my journey into the generational differences had begun.  Very quickly (in fact moments after my beer arrived) I began to ponder the answer to this question in a meaningful way.  My boss at the time (newly minted I might add) Frank C., had given me responsibility for this across an organization of 20,000, with the idea that diversity today is about diversity of thought as much as it is about the protected classes (I always forget this list). 

I always loved this concept as was evident in my post about innovation platforms and understanding how people innovate.  How people innovate is clearly about diversity of thought.

That being said, I have two millennials in my house, I am smack in the middle of Gen X, and I have had the pleasure of working with Gen Y's and mentoring them too (as well as having baby boomers and the generation older than them as well...that name escapes me).

As much as how people do things different, what skills they have in their educational tool box, the concept of generational diversity is also a factor that must be considered when creating an innovation culture based upon trust.

I recently had a great adventure with my Gen Y buddy when I got to go out with a bunch of his friends in NYC.  It was wild.  I am 40 year old suburban living California with two kids who has been married before internet dating was even conceived.  I am a Gen Xer who is very able to appreciate some of the hallmarks of Gen Y culture (work/life balance, freedom to operate) but I also have much Boomer ethic in me (do what it takes to get the job done, no one will hand it to you, working hard is where success comes from), but like I always say, until you are face to face with the differences you cannot appreciate what it is truly like to deal with them. And oh yeah, I am married to a woman from South America which means I have a hybrid-Hispanic/American culture in my it a real melting pot.

I guess the point of this post is to highlight that all generations needs to get greater awareness of the other in order to make a more seamless work culture.  The only thing I had in common with this youthful troop (besides Stan who is a first generation American and demonstrates other traits not seen in true-blooded Gen Y's) is that we all work in social media.  I work in the creation of the infrastructure on the west coast in silicon valley...they work on the east cost marketing its value to the consumers who create its ebb and flow.  You would think there would be much to discuss.

But I would say it started as a awkward cultural cluster you know what.  As a Gen X going to a socializing event, it is perfectly normal to expect to share your professional experience, talk shop and even trade cards looking for some commonality of business interests.  For us, crossing those boundaries is normal and regular.  For Gen Y, they want to separate work and life, but at the same time want you to know what they do in their work while they are enjoying their life, so it is a bit confusing that they claim not to be defined by their careers although they wear their achievements like a badge.  This sounds negative, but it is not.  I am merely highlighting what I believe is a difference in generational culture.

Secondly, I was raised to be more interested in learning about others as I was sharing about myself.  It is proper manners to ask first about someone else, with an expectation of being asked as well.  I continue to be fascinated that the percentage of Gen Y folks who will follow telling you about themselves with a question is about 25%.  I would say 1 in 4 ask you back.  Now this is something I think is a shame.  I certainly respect a Gen Y's view on life.  I love the work/life balance thing.  I love the trust me and I will get the job done (even in my experience their ability to "push" themselves to achieve the things they envision is hit or miss).  I also love their confidence in their abilities (even though I still believe there is a think line between confidence, arrogance and ego).  But as a Gen Xer who I am sure was similar in many ways when I was in my 20's I will share this...

I have learned in the last five years a very important lesson I would share with anyone.  The epiphany is this.  Find people older than you who are your peers, but also have been where you are.  They are like time travelers.  They know things about what you are going through AND you are peers in thought.  If you lower your narcissistic tendencies for a moment (sorry Gen Y...this is you I am talking to...although there is plenty of that across generations), something wonderful can happen.  You can accelerate your learning curve because they can help you see into your future.  What skills you need to learn, how to avoid mistakes they have made and where you might be going even if you are not sure.

The best example of this involved a recent breakfast I had with two of my innovation elders.  One I have known on and off for five years, John Joss (a real scholar, a real gentleman, and a real visionary) the other is H whom I will call H as we are still getting to know each other.

After returning to the Bay Area last year, John reached out to me because quite frankly we were innovation kindred spirits (people who travel along the innovation time line so to speak) to have lunch.  Eating together after not seeing each other for 3 years was a real joy.  We caught up, we talked and he shared with me some adventures he wanted me to be involved in.  Part of the meeting included meeting with H (his buddy who he thought we would have much to discuss).  I agreed and we set up the breakfast I am referring to.

One morning, before a meeting, I met John and H in the Ferry building in SF.  John shows up wearing a leather motorcycle suit with sun glasses and his hair slicked back (John is 78 an is a true inspiration in this regards...because he doesn't see age) and H shows up wearing classic silicon valley attire (jeans baby!).  We proceed to have breakfast together and talk about innovation and what opportunities my current company might have with H's market research firm.  But as I am sitting there I get that time traveler sense.  H and I are connecting very strongly from the standpoint of creativity, culture change and helping people see how to be different.  H owns his own business and has for 25 years because he doesn't like what big company culture has to offer.  He has a smile as he listens to my story of how I ended up sitting in the seat across from him.  If I dismiss H, because I know more, I have my proverbial shit together etc, I miss the opportunity to SEE into my future.

H sits there laughing gently staring at me because I can see he has been in my shoes struggling with the future that I look towards and he has already lived.  I ask him..."you can see where I heading can't you?"  He wisely looks at me and says..."yes, you are nearly there, but it will take some more time".  I won't go into the specifics, but the gist is that by meeting a thought peer with experience I am now able to recognize when it is time to shut up and ask a lot of question to learn rather than assume I know it all  because it is different now.  As a middle aged guy, I know technology changes, which changes how we relate to the world, but the emotional and mental tribulations we go through in life are merely similar flavors. Instead of being key lime today it was lime in the past, but it is still lime and it is still citrus.  I mean blue lake beans are just friggin green beans if you know what I mean.

What does this have to do with diversity and culture.  I believe to drive better cultural symmetry in our personal and professional lives, we have to get real, stop leaning our generational morays and simply try to learn all the time from everyone.  In my night out with Gen Y, I stepped into some cultural mines that made me feel like most of them where thinking who is this slightly overweight balding middle age guy and what is he doing here.  What they didn't take the time to ask or learn is they may have had a time traveler in their midst who could be a great peer that could help them understand the mine field they are currently wandering through as they try to find themselves.

It is why even though I live 3000 miles away from Stan, that he will always have my support and help.  Why?  Because when I was an executive at a company of 20,000 people he had the guts to walk into my office look me in the eye and ask for my help, because I seemed the least full of shit leader he had come across and he wanted to learn.  Good move Stan.  This is the type of humility missing from our generational timeline that exists in a fast paced world that is now overrun by social media.

In fact, I was able to open up an opportunity for Stan to get a job...why? because as I said he recognized the opportunity to befriend a time traveler...and that is where true learning starts and narcissism ends.

think about it.

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