William Blair 2020 Courageous Conversations Kickoff: Engaging Employees in Today's Multigenerational Workplace

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Scott Zimmer

Scott Zimmer gives first Courageous Conversation of 2020 on connecting generations.

William Blair launched its 2020 Courageous Conversations Series on February 20 with an insightful talk by communications expert Scott Zimmer on how generational differences among employees can be turned into positive effects for businesses.

Zimmer, who works for consultancy BridgeWorks in Minneapolis, said that significant differences in staff age and experience affect almost every workplace in the U.S. As Baby Boomers often work past retirement age and more Millennials and GenZ's join blue and white collar environments, Zimmer said the organizations which continue to thrive are the ones that find ways to prioritize listening, tolerance, and teamwork across generations.

Those that do are best positioned to retain talent, he added.

"Mentorship is such an important part of the retention process at any organization," Zimmer told employees at a meeting at Chicago headquarters.

Zimmer said coaching is an essential tool for all effective organizations. But the most successful ones also recognize that does not mean age dictates knowledge. Some of the most essential job skills in cutting-edge occupations are carried in by the newest employees, not just the oldest.

"But at the end of the day how different generations want to collaborate looks a little bit different," Zimmer said, emphasizing that targeting skills and underscoring self-interest in learning them were themes that needed to be emphasized.

Nurturing an inclusive and diverse culture

Courageous Conversations debuted in 2018 as a series of talks to grow an inclusive and diverse employee culture at William Blair.

Ken Langston with William Blair's private wealth management leadership team, welcomed Zimmer and underscored the firm's values: "Every employee of every generation brings something different and something of value to the organization."

Noting William Blair's workforce spans five generations, Langston encouraged employees to connect across generations—seeking advice on clients or markets or how-to technical skills.

Zimmer said top management in successful companies recognize that putting the right teams with the right leaders is essential.

From computer and social media skills to virtual collaboration, younger generations are bringing a new richness to staff and client interactions. Older generations bring not just years of industry knowledge but well-earned experiences in client relationships and achieving results.

"We've all had that moment when we failed to connect with another generation," Zimmer said. "Too often we focus on our differences rather than trying to find how to bring these different perspectives and talents to the table to get the job done."

Childhood experiences 

Zimmer, who also led a 2019 Courageous Conversation talk, discussed research that zeroed in on how what happens during an individual's teenage years—from family to pop culture to world events—tends to have lasting effects on how we react to situations throughout our lives.

As a general example, he said that Baby Boomers tend to appreciate face-to-face formality—starting meetings on time, establishing specific responsibilities and goals. By contrast, he said Generation Z now entering the workforce are a consumer technology-saturated generation that excels at on-line teamwork.

"Both Baby Boomers and GenZ are industrious, hard-working generations that want to succeed and be understood and heard," Zimmer said. "They just go about it a little differently."

Zimmer recommends several strategies for mentors and mentees to strengthen their relations, including prioritizing the relationship; sharing responsibilities; "active" listening; and inviting and embracing feedback.

"At the end of the day, though, I do feel we are more alike than different," said Zimmer. "We all want to feel valued and respected, understood and heard."

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