Fast Company

Boomer Retirement Brings New Opportunities, Creating Stronger Future

Larry Forster is featured as an expert on collaboration in my latest book, Getting Change Right. Below is an interview he conducted with me about Boomer retirement. Larry just completed a 27-year career with Shell where he was a staff engineer and pioneer in the use of storytelling and performance improvement . More information on Larry and his work can be found at LarryForster.com.

LF: The Boomer generation is on its way out of the work force. Some companies are prepared, some are not, and things may get even worse for those who are. Crew change, as some have referred to it, will likely not resemble anything of the routine, daily, or weekly practices experienced by industries who plan on a discrete transfer of information and continued operation as usual.  Instead, this transition will involve riding a train to the future, a train that is not about to slow down.What does “Crew Change” mean to you, what do you think of when you hear the term?

A Transition to a Future State
SK:  I first heard the term in the oil and gas industry. But you know, it's everywhere including here in Washington, DC. There’s a huge migration out of government right now and an associated switchover to younger people.

They bring a completely different mindset. It’s dramatic, so much so that it causes a gaping hole between generations.  The way I saw it manifest in the oil industry was the contrast between somebody sitting on a rig behind a keyboard doing modeling and the guys with big, calloused hands who were used to discerning what was going on from physical and visual cues, and by knowledge passed from person to person.

This is very different from the men and women coming out of college onto the rigs, adept at working in a modeling universe. They are taking a proactive approach to understanding what things look like down below, forecasting what the future might bring in terms of revenue, and how best to harvest wells and reservoirs. This contrast is what comes to mind when I think of the crew change. I think this is a powerful transition for all industries, not just energy.

LF: Great definition, it opens the discussion to the need for the crew change to support a transition to the future state that is already on its way. And that prompts me to ask about your experiences in equipping people with the knowledge and experience they need not only for today, but to enable them to embrace new roles.

Two Key Needs: Forward-Looking Leaders, Plus Experienced Guides
SK:  I’m all for bringing people into leadership positions who understand the next wave. I think that’s key, and one of the ways I’ve seen work in other industries. For example, I worked with a national association going global in the early 2000s. They had a small call center in rural Pennsylvania. The staff in the center had a hard time understanding other people who had a different accent, let alone a different way of thinking. Yet, they were being asked to man 24/7 global call centers.

They were given training on multicultural sensitivity. They studied different accents so that they could become better at deciphering what other people were saying. But, when you boiled it down, the global multicultural mindset was not part of their reality, and they were handicapped as a result. They just were not able to make the jump.

They were trying to navigate a world that was not their home. Any one of them could have adapted. Even a small group of them could have adapted to a larger call center that understood the issues and mindsets. But, with the majority of them, or in this case all of them, not having personally experienced a multicultural or global situation, the dominant paradigm in the room was a rural Pennsylvania one. They couldn’t make the jump. 

What they did to address the issue was to get people on staff who were multicultural, who were global in their orientation… so many so that these newcomers became the majority. Then the local folks began to effectively support the decentralized 24/7 environment. 

The same thing has to happen with the crew change.  You have to bring people in, people who can do strategy, people who can think proactively.

Another example:  I’m working a major player in the communications industry.  They are dealing with major upheaval because of digitization: iPhone technology, Kindles, other media, multi-channel distribution, and new business processes that rise from effective repurposing of information. 

The real growth today is in two areas: (1) helping organizations retool end to end, which means redesigining business processes to meet the future; and (2) identifying and exploiting emerging opportunities that are opening up as a result of digitization.

So here you have something just like crew change, except in this case it’s not so much associated with transitions due to aging. It has more to do with mindset  I just got off the phone with a Boomer vice president of of a large Fortune 10 company. He was very exciting to talk to. He is clearly a player in this new world. 

He was enthusiastic, thrilled, and energized by working the new trends, opening up and running emergent business solutions.  He’s got a very different orientation than someone who is getting pulled, kicking and screaming, into the new world.

What you need are people like this guy in leadership positions who are engaged, enthused, hungry, out on the prowl, going beyond climbing the curve to helping construct the curve. 

LF:  Very interesting examples. We will need seasoned people with particular experience to help address new challenges and to make new ways of working possible; we also need people with clear visions of, and a drive toward, a compelling future, to move us in that direction. 

The second point has helped fuel my curiosity about the generation now entering the workplace.  What is your experience and observations about Generation Y, the millennials?  What do the older generations need to understand and appreciate about them?

The Millennials, Part 1: Cutting Right to the Chase

SK:  One trend,that has come to my attention, is that very young people don’t do email.  This is major, a sea change.  I thought that it might be because they’re not in an environment that requires email. Maybe they will pick it up when they’re in the business environment, and have to conduct affairs via email.

But something happened just recently that gave me pause to reconsider.  I checked out my son who is now 12 years old. This trend is accurate for him. He doesn’t do email.  He removed the email app from his iPhone, put it in a folder he doesn’t use.

He had an email account, with 608 unread messages, some of them from me! He just doesn’t use email. He does text messaging and he does face to face. I don’t know if that will change when he’s in a work environment and ramping up to a culture that uses email.  But if it stays this way for him, it’s a huge change, because business today is totally dependent on email.

Let me speak to the part of this group that already is operative in the work place shaping our organizational cultures. I see two things: First, they’re moving rapidly to a merit based culture, as opposed to seniority or tenure based culture. This is something most organizations will have to adapt to, and it’s a very good thing in my opinion. 

Millennials are in an age group which most organizations disqualify from leadership positions – not explicitly, but disqualified nonetheless – a kind of reverse ageism. Yet they have no hesitation over engaging fully, questioning leaders, and even leaving the organizations because of disagreements with leaders. They’re completely willing to put their money where their mouth is.

They don’t understand the whole idea of seniority, it just doesn’t make sense to them.  For example, they are saying, “Look, you have a mission. These are the results you’re after, let’s talk under these terms and determine how to achieve the objectives.

"If there are concerns about the means for achieving them, or the way we operate, that’s on the table, but if I’m locked out of the conversation because I haven’t been with the organization for 5 years, or 25 years, I just don’t get it. If this continues, I’m out of here. Let me into the room. Although I have less experience I’m fully capable of engaging with the senior staff on the most important issues, and I want to. The quickest way for me to learn is to be in that conversation, not to be bringing in coffee."

That’s the first big difference I am seeing, a merit based view. We have a Darwinian evolution going on here. When organizations reject that behavior, the millennials go to organizations that embrace this approach. There you find better innovation and execution.

The Millennials, Part 2: Heading Straight for the Deep End
Second there is a strong inclination to jump into the deep end. There is a simultaneous recognition of their lack of life experience, so it’s not hubris or naiveté. These people have their wits about them and when called to task, they listen.  They have the willingness to play hardball from day one.

They live in a world of constant learning curve. Everything they’re interested in puts them on a vertical learning curve and they’re used to it. They’re not going to put off engaging with leaders until they reach a plateau of personal comfort, because they do not plateau in their learning… there are no plateaus in their learning world. This results in a different mindset. 

The older folks come with a different approach. They want to get settled, to feel as if they have their feet on the ground and understand the lay of the land. They wait before they jump into full participation. The younger folks come in and they’re used to constant rough water.  They go right to where the heart of the issue is.  In my opinion, this is also better for the economy, creativity, and human endeavor.

LF:  These are very interesting, and very profound observations. These kind of behaviors and the mindset driving them will certainly be key factors about how organizations function in the future. And they’re key to understand right now, while we’re in a crew change transition.  I already see this transition differently, I even recognize that transition is not really the right descriptor. What I have been referring to as Crew Change, as a discrete, one-time event, is really a continuously evolving process.

Starting Now: A Continuous Stream of Change
SK: You’ve hit the nail on the head.  We’re moved from episodic change to a continuous stream.  As things start moving faster and faster, organizations need to have in place a strategy which recognizes and accounts for this rapid and continuous pace of change.  The experience from the generation exiting the workplace needs to be integrated into this pace of change.

LF: And the old style needs to cognizant of, and compatible with, the new style, starting now.  I really appreciate getting your thoughts today on this challenge, which I see now is not only about preserving the lessons of the past, but is far more about opening the path to the future. 

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