Picture two design engineers sitting at a table. One is a 25-year-old woman who has been on the job for about a year. The other is a man with 30+ years of experience in the same company. They are smiling and clearly comfortable with each other after a year on the same team, working next to each other. I ask them both the same question: “What would make the knowledge transfer/mentoring relationship between you two work better?”
She: “I would like to be given real work. What are we waiting for?”
He: “I want her to realize that it takes time to learn this job.”
She: “I would like him to stop breathing down my neck.”
He: “I want her to realize that she doesn’t already know everything.”
This actually happened, and I loved that these two were able to give voice to a whole generation’s issues. When the senior engineer started his career, engineers were still considered the “new guy” until they’d been around for at least 7 – 10 years. Since these engineers were likely to stay in the same job for 30 years, this didn’t seem too crazy. He expects his young colleague to be comfortable with that mode of thinking. “Pay your dues. Take on small tasks. Earn respect,” would be the approach.
She, however, is part of a whole generation that thinks this approach is just nuts. Why would anyone find it interesting to plod along in a job at such a pace? And, she’s right. You will not find one business executive who would be happy with having a payroll stacked with underutilized employees. This is especially true when research shows that most of her generation won’t stay in one place more than 7 years anyway. And, if the pace doesn’t pick up, she’ll leave much sooner.
The senior engineer has a point, though. How can he give her real work and stop breathing down her neck if he isn’t confident in her abilities?
Overcoming Generational Differences With a Structured Solution
The answer is more straightforward than most people think. Make a clear list of what the Gen Y employee needs to know how to do—with top priorities first—then provide her with a list of test questions that will allow her to prove to the more experienced Boomer employee that she has learned a skill. Include on your list some resources (in addition to her mentor, e.g. manuals, intranet resources, other skilled coworkers) to help her proactively manage her own learning and methodically get up to speed by a specified time. Once she has proven she is ready to do a certain task she should have some opportunities to practice the skill and get feedback on the results. Then the dialog can look like this:
He: “Our team has a hard task ahead of us. Here is a list of what you have to know how to do so you can jump in and help.”
She: “What questions do I need to be able to answer to show that I’m ready and what resources would you recommend I use to get prepared?”
He: “I have laid all that out in your plan; let’s get you through it as quickly as possible.”
She: “I’ll chase down as much of this on my own as I can, and check back with my best answers to the questions you’ve posed. Then you can help me fill in the gaps so I can be ready to go to work on this project.”
Again, I’ve seen this happen—to the benefit of all involved. The key for management is to shift the conversation from “paying dues,” “lack of trust,” and “he/she doesn’t get me” to implementing an actionable plan that alleviates concerns about knowledge and skills sets and gets people doing real work quicker.
FOR MORE INFO: consider watching this free knowledge transfer webinar I gave last September on “Knowledge Transfer Across Generations: Preserving Your Secret Sauce.” (Jump to about 10% into the stream if you want to skip the introductions and such.)