Relating to the younger people in your A/E firm

May 21, 2007

It seems like yesterday that I was “the young guy.” And that’s the last thing I wanted to be. I always tried hard to look and seem older than I really was so people would take me more seriously. Now, the tables have turned. I am “the old guy.” My hairline is receding (that started a long time ago!) and my knee is shot. On top of it, I am supposed to be watching my diet or will soon go on cholesterol-reducing drugs. As my almost 87-year-old dad says, “Old age isn’t for sissies!” My students, on the other hand, are generally between 20 and 22— there are a few older ones, but the bulk of them are typical junior- and senior-level undergraduates. One walk across campus on a pretty day will make you quite aware that this is a different world than the one you lived in a short time ago. Everyone is so youthful! I have noticed that some of our readers’ firms are starting to feel like a college campus. I was at one of our clients a few months ago and they must’ve had at least 50 people under 25 working in that particular office. Many of you have hired a lot of young people in the past couple years. You may be starting to feel like I do! I’m here to tell you that, even though there may be a “generation gap” between us and them, it is possible for us older folks to relate to the younger ones. It’s not always easy— there are some obstacles to overcome. But it’s essential if you are going to be able to lead those who are 20, 30, or more years younger than you. Based on my experience, here are some dos and don’ts if you want to relate to the younger people in your firm: Don’t try to use their language. You will sound like an idiot if you try to use the slang of the day. I understand little of it. I attempt to use even less of it. Can you imagine what you would’ve thought back in ‘68 if one of your parents told you something was groovy? Don’t try to dress like them— entirely. Again, there’s nothing wrong with trying to keep in style as far as dress is concerned. That said, I don’t think the younger folks will be impressed if the male principals start wearing their pants like they are just about ready to fall down, or if the female principals wear cocktail dresses with cowboy boots to work. Try too hard and you’ll fall on your face! Do get up-to-speed on pop culture. It does help if you know something about the popular music or TV shows that your younger set is watching. It gives you something to talk about and the younger people are usually impressed if someone older knows their culture. Do work with them. If you want to form relationships with your younger employees, it helps to work with them on projects. Working together on something productive is always one of the best ways to break down cultural barriers to having more effective relationships. Do dine with them. I have been saying for years that too many principals only hang out with their fellow principals. Lunchtime is a perfect time to get together with one or more of the younger people in your firm to learn more about them and allow them to learn more about you. Don’t isolate yourself from the younger people in your firm. Don’t be too judgmental of their fashions, music, etc. Nothing makes you sound more like an old-timer than this. You don’t want to be today’s equivalent of the guy who would yell “get a haircut” at someone with long hair in the late 60s. Don’t make a lot of comments about how young people don’t want to work nowadays. They don’t want to hear you making comments about how everything was harder for you and that you did so much more on a daily basis than they have to. It’s a surefire turnoff. Think what you may about the younger generation, but the fact is, they are here to stay and many of them, if we don’t run them off, will be running our firms some day. Get along with them and harness their energy for the collective good of your firm. Originally published 5/21/2007

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