Getting the best from each other

Apr 20, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 10.05.11 AMToday’s workforce is multigenerational, so those with experience and seniority must learn to understand, and teach, younger colleagues. I was born in 1944, a couple of years before the Baby Boom. But my values and my approach to relationships align pretty well with that generation. My challenge as a young professional was to communicate with “the greatest generation,” who didn’t always understand where I was coming from. In my career, I’ve worked with Generation X, Generation Y, and now I’m working with Millennials. It’s been an interesting journey, as each generation has some unique characteristics. The success of our work and our firms is deeply dependent on our ability to communicate well across generations. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve learned and observed on this topic. I’ll start from a point early in my career. In 1972 I was assigned to work as the tenant development coordinator for the Oakland City Center. Both the developer and contractor asked that I attend the Owner/Architect/Contractor meetings each week so I would be familiar with the technology and operations of the building when meeting with tenants. This turned out to be a graduate course in how to take a complex project through design, bidding, buying, and into construction. The project executive from the contractor became a role model for the balance of my career. One of the most important lessons he taught: not everything is urgent, so don’t treat every task the same. Some items were brought out to get everyone thinking about them, with a long-range date by which an answer was necessary. Others, sometimes brought up at the spur of the moment, were urgent and needed action within an hour, a day or two days. I learned that in project leadership, you must understand this and not run a fire drill unless it’s necessary. He also gave me a feel for how a project proceeds. I was also privileged early in my career to be within walking distance of a number of projects that I was working on. This offered me the opportunity to visit a project during the lunch hour, introduce myself to the subcontractors on the job, and ask them what they thought of our drawings. I wanted to know if our drawings communicated clearly our intent and, if not, how we might do them better. Once again, I was privileged to learn from seasoned professionals, who, because my inquiry was genuine, always took the time to guide me. I’ve tried to model my experiences and what I learned as I’ve gotten older. Here are a few thoughts about how senior members of your firm can convey the wisdom they’ve gained over the years with younger staff:
  • Share willingly what you’ve learned. Don’t just tell a person what to do, tell them why to do it that way. Don’t lecture them; share what you know in a positive and collaborative way.
  • Listen well; ask a lot of questions. Don’t just jump in and give them an answer.
  • Don’t be patronizing or condescending in any way. Show the younger person respect. It will encourage them to continue to seek your advice and to show respect for others.
So what should this younger generation be aware of about themselves as they begin to develop in their careers? Once I was talking with a technology executive from Germany during a TED Conference break about how dramatically both our professions had changed with the rapid advancements in technology. I expressed a concern about the difficulty of critiquing the work of my younger colleagues. Rather than a floor plan on a large sheet of paper, allowing me to look at the entire project in context, I was dealing with a colleague who had only a small window into the project on the computer screen. That made it impossible for me to comment with any sense of context. I was amazed by the young employees and their ability to “see” in their minds the entirety of what they were working on while only being able to see a fraction of the drawing. Perhaps this came from hours of playing complex, multi-layered computer games, a direct simile for what was going on. My German colleague said, “That’s nothing. I have a more severe problem. These young kids don’t know how to solve a problem as a team. I was frustrated last week when people sitting right next to each other sent text messages back and forth. In frustration, I called them all into a conference room, sat them down and said we’re not leaving until we solve this together. Within five minutes they were all screaming at one another and charged out of the room to continue with their way of solving a problem – by texting.” They clearly never learned the fine art of face-to-face negotiation. So, for you as a young professional, on your way into a leadership role, here are some thoughts:
  • Learn to interact with your colleagues, young and old, by inquiry as opposed to command. Find out together what the right answer is. Learn to negotiate.
  • Take advantage of your more seasoned colleagues. They can make you look good.
  • Learn from their hard-earned people skills (those who actually took the time to gain them). A major part of your career path as you develop is your ability to boost morale, and make a decision about whether a conversation should take place face-to-face rather than via email or text.
  • Learn how and when to say “congratulations” on a job well done. Each of your colleagues reacts differently. Some appreciate recognition in front of others; some are more comfortable if it is delivered in private.
Being aware of and working through your inter-generational communication skills is worth the effort.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

This article is from issue 1143 of The Zweig Letter. Interested in more management advice every week from Mark Zweig, the Zweig Group team, and a talented list of other guest writers? Click here for to get a free trial of The Zweig Letter.

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