October 23, 2012

Closing the Generation Gap: Managing the Multigenerational Firm

Issue Cover Law Practice Magazine Logo


Say so long to your comfort zone.
What you need to know
about managing the multigenerational law firm.

June 2006 Issue | Volume 32 Number 4 | Page 30


By Nancy R. Peppard

Are you pursuing a career or are you working at a job? The answer doesn't rest in your profession, title or salary. Rather, in most situations, the answer depends on your generational identity. What management needs to know to avoid a cultural divide in the microsociety known as the law firm.

TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS: Gen X litigator Katie Reilly wasn't even born when boomer Jeff Chase graduated from the University of Colorado College of Law and joined Denver's Holme Roberts & Owen. Once there, he stayed put for 20 years before leaving to launch the small but feisty Denver firm Jacobs Chase. Conversely, at age 30, Katie had already practiced with Cravath, Swaine & Moore in New York City, and with Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr in Washington, D.C., before choosing the Rocky Mountains and Jeff's 32-lawyer firm.

It wasn't that long ago that your rank, salary and authority within an organization resulted solely from "paying your dues"—which was an oblique way of describing your ability to outmaneuver your peers in the subtextual politics laid down by the generation before you. The idea of a manager being younger than "his" staff was simply unheard of (unless you were the son of the owner). Historically, "elder" managers defined the game in play and they were always in charge of their younger colleagues' destinies, with no room for upstarts.

However, all that changed in the 1990s, when Generation X entered the workplace and generational diversity became an issue in human resources management. Today, it is not unusual for people born across a span of seven decades to work closely together in one law firm. While older, middle-aged and younger staff may share common work tasks, they don't share the same values, motivations, approaches to work, ethics, communication styles or perceptions. This is having a considerable, though still largely unaddressed, impact on the workplace.

Moreover, these generational differences are not confined to interactions among and between firm employees. They directly affect marketing efforts, client relations, jury selection and influence and, yes, even trial outcomes—from local zoning boards to the U.S. Supreme Court, generational issues are at play. After all, it's not about "the letter of the law"; it's about the interpretation of the law.

How you manage the issues presented by multigenerationalism will be critical to your firm's future. The first step is to understand the nature, and the scope, of the challenge.


What Creates Generational Differences?

The short answer is history—or what gerontologists refer to as the cohort effect. In other words, your outlook on life is heavily dependent on your subconscious interpretation and understanding of the tensions, shifts and forces that dominated the years in which you came of age.

Let's look at two of the dominant generations: baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979). More often than not, the two have a contentious coexistence in the workforce today. Consider how their answers would differ on our opening question: "Are you pursuing a career or are you working at a job?"

Common wisdom goes like this:

  • Baby boomers think "career." Generation X thinks "job."

  • Boomers put their personal goals before their family. Gen Xers blend and balance their work-family connections.

  • Boomers think "power and influence." Gen Xers think "a means to an end."

  • Boomers equate "time with productivity," as in, "The longer I stay at the office, the more valuable I am." Gen Xers equate "productivity with outcome," as in, "The sooner I get to a successful conclusion, the sooner I can get on with my [personal] life."

In short, the differences between these two generation's attitudes are analogous to the conditions necessary to create The Perfect Storm.

In other words, for management, what differentiates Gen Xers from most of their older colleagues (who assimilated into the politics at work or "sold out") is that Gen Xers will blaze out on their own with little or no fanfare, choosing to compete with their elders rather than cave into the pressure to conform. This creates the twofold problem of (1) a brain drain and (2) a lack of a multigenerational workforce from which a multigenerational client base can choose.

Losing the best and brightest to out-of-date management practices eventually rings the death knell for those stubbornly holding out "on principle"—the kind of thinking that goes, "If I had to pay my dues, then you have to as well." Not to worry, however. That strategy might work once again as a generation even larger than the baby boomers—the so-called echo boomers, or Generation Y (born between 1980 and 1999)—enters the workforce. But don't get too excited. Echo boomers, by and large, are good at taking rote tests. They are excellent at getting their lifestyle demands met. But overall, they are undisciplined, unfocused and unreasonable. They pose a whole new set of human resources issues the likes of which will be unprecedented in American history.


Are We Dealing with Teams or Gangs?

Back to the Gen Xers: The first things you must understand are the values that Gen Xers hold most sacred, and remember that these values are the product of their cohort effect. Gen Xers will not waver on trust, reliability or dependability. Now think of the plethora of business workshops baby boomers attended in the '90s about principles, ethics, leadership and the like. And consider that if boomers were trustworthy, reliable and dependable leaders, Steven Covey would still be a college professor working his fingers to the bone in order to support his family!

The second thing to consider is that owing to the laws of supply and demand, the scales of power shifted to Gen Xers once they entered the workforce. Why? Again, we find the longitudinal impact of the cohort effect, a phenomenon that creates each generation's motivational hallmarks. Let's look at those hallmarks.

  • Scarcity. Gen Xers are a small generation (less than half the number of baby boomers). As a scarce commodity, they were able to name their "price" in the '90s and then they dictated their preferences when they entered the labor pool. This was exactly opposite the experience of boomers, who flooded the market in the '70s and then conspired their way to middle management—which is actually a late 20th century creation designed to absorb the millions of college-educated boomers as they went forth to exceed their parents' expectations.

  • Skills. Gen Xers possess the technological, logistical and networking skills requisite to compete most productively and profitably—locally or globally. They have elevated the concept of multitasking to a whole new art form, along with text languages that only savvy generational insiders can decipher.

  • Attitude. Gen Xers are not "team" players. Therefore, they do not respond to traditional "management" —aka structure. Because of the circumstances of their youth, their group participation is more akin to the broadest definition of "gang" member.

Teams are put together by an outside source (an owner, coach or HR director). Individual players have no choice in the team selection process. As a result, there is a leveling out process that inevitably results in the formation of cliques or co-conspirators within the team. Trust, reliability and dependability are orphaned in this management structure. Everyone considers themselves to be a free agent.

Gangs are democratic in the sense that members are selected through a group-monitored, rite-of-passage process. Once the group members decide who they trust to watch their backs, a new member is inducted. By definition, gangs are bound together by a code of conduct: Their priority is self-preservation, something that Gen Xers had to create when both of their parents, mother along with father, entered the labor force and left them in the hands of surrogate caretakers.


What Can Be Done to Bring Gen Xers into the Fold?

Clearly, managers cannot control the complex personal preferences and attitudes of individuals who work in the firm, either in the hiring process or in day-to-day operations. So, how are the problems that arise between the generations resolved or, at least, ameliorated?

The heart of the solution lies in recognizing that if you work within a multigenerational organization, you are working in a multicultural microsociety. Like society at large, which is now more multicultural than ever before, organizations of every stripe and color must realize that multiculturalism isn't an alien concept or a dividing force in and of itself. It is a by-product of globalization, and it isn't likely to change any time soon.

To maximize cooperation and function with so many competing variables, management must reexamine their organizations' policies, purpose and goals in order to achieve these ends:

  • Remain competitive in securing "talent," especially in light of the impending retirement of their core employee base, the boomers.
  • Continue to maintain an impeccable reputation, ergo to market through results.
  • Maximize profitability. A revolving door of hiring and firing insidiously consumes profits.

Traditional management, in terms of hierarchy and structure, must change. This will be a major problem among boomers, although it will be greatly welcomed by Gen Xers. In the place of the traditional, management must institute an ironclad policy of personal accountability. This may sound simple. It is not!

The monkey wrench to the success of this transition is each individual's personal level of maturity. Those who are most immature will be those who become the most visible, the most visceral and the most vindictive—regardless of generational identity—during the process.

In these instances, you will be presented with difficult choices—which is why it is imperative to develop well-thought-out accountability factors, free of corrosive loopholes. As an example, if a partner reveals his or her immaturity, do you require that person to come up to speed in terms of emotional and social maturity within a specified length of time, or do you dissolve the person's partnership in accord with the new accountability code? On the other hand, if an associate is impressively mature and adept, do you bestow partnership on this individual regardless of his or her length of tenure with the firm?

As you can see, reconstituting our concepts of human resources management is a process that will be plagued by resistance and sabotage. No one likes to move out of their comfort zone unless it is of their own choosing. On the other hand, immature people are like a cancer within an organization. The longer they are allowed to be a free radical, the more deadly and costly they become to the entire body.