The digital economy isn't just for the young

The generations have much to learn from each other, says veteran hospitality entrepreneur turned Airbnb advisor Chip Conley.

by Chip Conley
Last Updated: 19 Sep 2018

Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s ‘Peace on Earth’. Tony Bennett and Amy Winehouse’s ‘Body and Soul’. Intergenerational improv is well-known in music, art, and science. We see proof of diversity igniting the creative spark just about everywhere. The consulting firm McKinsey has shown that gender-diverse companies outperform the industry averages by 15% and ethnically-diverse teams notch that up to 35% compared to their homogenous competitors.

What about age? A number of European studies have proven the success of age-diverse teams. Empirically, we know that generational silos offer no real benefit in the modern workplace, where five generations now work together. Yet, the pace of technology has fomented a strong bias toward millennial digital natives.

As power cascades faster and faster to these digital natives, companies expect their young leaders to miraculously embody the emotional intelligence (EQ) that older workers have had twice as long to learn. Relational wisdom comes with time. And I’m suggesting that now is the time to create a more formalised means of mutual mentoring: millennial DQ (digital intelligence) for boomer (and genX) EQ. This could be the essential intergenerational trade agreement of our time.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the value of tech industry intergenerational collaboration first-hand. As a long-time hospitality industry entrepreneur, I was asked by the millennial co-founders of Airbnb to join them in early 2013 to turn their Silicon Valley tech start-up into a global hospitality brand. Yet, at age 52, I’d never worked in a tech company and I was twice the age of the average employee. I was both excited and intimidated. Five and a half years later, our company has become a model for being an age-friendly workplace. Here are three key steps companies can take to create a more age-diverse workforce:

1. Value wisdom as much as disruption. A growing number of us have a boss who’s younger than us. Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky was 21 years younger than me. And, yet, many of these young digital leaders have had limited or no leadership training. Why not create 'in the trenches' training in which older workers are offered the chance to give younger managers more frequent feedback about how they could be a more effective leader? While external coaches can be helpful, a company could train some of its long-time workers in advisory skills to reduce their external coaching budget while also providing a new, enriched career path for some of their more experienced leaders.

2. Create the conditions for mutual mentoring to flourish. This new intergenerational alliance requires wisdom to flow in both directions – old to young and young to old. This reciprocity means supporting your digital natives to educate older staff on how to use a smartphone more effectively, the ins and outs of social media, or the tech tools that can increase efficiency and success. Barclays bank, for example, created its Bolder Apprenticeship program for workers over 50 who want to be retrained in newer technologies by those younger than them.

3. Redefine ‘productivity’. Growing data show that the presence of older workers increases the productivity of younger workers and reduces turnover. It’s time to find a metric to capture the value-add of experienced workers. While it’s difficult to develop productivity measurement tools that capture these effects, there are some proxies that take into account the collateral team benefits of older workers. For one, employee satisfaction surveys might ask questions about which team members were most valuable for team performance. Some companies ask their employees to stack-rank their team members from most collaborative to least. A regularly-instituted survey could ask the question: ‘Who in the company – outside of your direct boss or a team member – do you look to for helpful advice?’ or ‘Who in the company is a role model for wisdom?’

Companies that recognise age as a rich diversity, and wisdom as a valuable resource across generations, will be able to calculate this ‘invisible productivity benefit’. The more digital we get in the workplace, the more humanity needs to be our differentiator and competitive advantage. One benefit of getting older is we often become wiser when it comes to understanding ourselves and other human beings. And, that’s why smart companies are just as interested in aged wisdom as they are in young genius.

Chip Conley is strategic advisor for hospitality and leadership at Airbnb and author of Wisdom at Work, published by Portfolio Penguin on 20 September (£14.99 paperback original).

Image credit: StockSnap/Pixabay

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