The New Workplace: Leading Successfully Across Generations


Last month, I was honored to speak at the San Francisco Women in Leadership Symposium on the topic of “The New Workplace: Leading Successfully Across Generations.” As someone passionate about diversity in the workplace, this topic and forum provided me with an opportunity to delve into concerns and benefits of an increasingly disparate age range in the workplace. The thoughts below are what I offered on-stage.

A few years ago, Wells Fargo surveyed 1,000 Americans between the ages of 25 and 75 about their retirement plans. Some of the findings were shocking, including that 30% of the people surveyed believed they would be working until 80 in order to have a comfortable retirement. And, generally, those same middle-class Americans believed they would be living near the poverty line in their retirement, collecting about half of their present income per year – about $25,000.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find the data from that survey to be unnerving. I don’t want to work until I’m 80, and I don’t want to be in poverty when I retire. I have to plan accordingly. And, as a leader of a technology company, I don’t have to plan only for myself. I have to plan for a future in which I may be managing eighty year-olds alongside twenty year-olds. What is that going to look like?

The situation right now doesn’t look like this. Right now, if you’re middle-aged or older in America, you have an uphill battle if you have to get a job, especially if you’re a woman.  I have some personal experience with this. A close friend of mine, a woman who attended Berkeley at the same time as I did, recently found herself laid off after many years with the same company, replaced by two younger people under the pretense that her job would be eliminated.  This mid-level manager always reaped top reviews and led teams who loved her, but she lost her job anyway. She is struggling to find new work and is faced with some difficult choices: does she have to take a step back after years in a leadership position? or try a new industry? She’s in her fifties and plans to work for at least another 10-15 years – but, if she’s on the longer-term plan, that could turn into 30 years! That’s decades and decades of value that she might add to a company – and valuable, she is, but when she walks into a room full of twenty-somethings to interview for a new tech job, the deck is stacked against her in so many ways. You may have seen a fairly-recent cover of Newsweek recently, decrying “What Silicon Valley Thinks of Women.” Well, I wrote a response to that on the Huffington Post, pointing out that, actually, women-led companies are producing returns on investments 30% higher than male-led companies – so I think that Silicon Valley should think that women are successful and valuable additions to the landscape. But we all know that it doesn’t work that way. We need to look no further than the recent Ellen Pao vs. Kleiner Perkins trial to note how gender issues are still pervasive in the workplace, something I wrote about in this month’s Huffington Post. Just as sexism and gender discrimination remain real issues for women at work, so does ageism. For people like my friend, who are both female and middle-aged, finding work right now is too hard; this makes working until 80 seem impossible.

But, it’s reality. So we need to plan for a future in which sixty years may divide our employees. The subject at hand is “leading across generations,” and here’s how I plan to do it.

For starters, I work hard not to be ageist or sexist. In fact, diversity in the workplace is good in every way. It’s something about which I’m passionate, and I put some time into advocating for it. I write a lot about it on this blog, actually. To give a specific example, at my current company, RingCentral, we have a Women’s Leadership Council that meets regularly to discuss issues that women are facing in our workplace. Men are welcome in these meetings too; I believe in a gender-neutral workplace, really. As someone who has made it to the top, I know that part of my role is setting a positive tone for all of my employees. I aim for that tone to be one that offers support, not judgment, for women of all ages who work alongside me. All managers have to embrace the reality that there are women who, like me, work consistently from college graduation through retirement. But there are also women – and, actually, men – who take time off for family matters, whether to raise kids or to care for aging parents. There are also folks who take sabbaticals of sorts, traveling the world for a couple of years, or employees who are on their second or third career when they arrive at our door. Sure, the number of relevant years in the workforce is a consideration when hiring someone, but there is also a place for people anywhere along that continuum as well as people who are smart and curious and changing jobs. I don’t punish people for taking time out of the workforce or for trying something new. Rather, I reward their work. A carrot is always better than a stick when it comes to leadership.

Being realistic in our hiring practices has a lot to do with leading a vast age group. Google hires based on aptitude, not just experience. In other words, what you’ve done matters less than what you can do. Imagine if my fifty-something friend, a highly-skilled manager, were interviewed in that light. She’d be a top-pick! So it’s not just factoring in someone’s depth of experience that should matter; we must also factor in potential. Does a sixty year-old have potential? Ask someone at Hewlett Packard, where the median age is 39. That’s right – 39! IBM and Oracle’s median age is 38. I know some sixty-somethings and seventy-somethings at these companies. They are not only working hard, but they are able to offer a lot of “back in the day” tech-talk that I value. Their contribution to the corporate climate matters as much as the younger set making us all feel good as they have their first babies, or the older folks who are sending their kids off to college and having their first grandkids. We all want to feel good in the workplace. And when we don’t have wide representation across age groups, the climate just isn’t as warm. If you want to know what I mean, walk across the Google campus. Despite their hiring practices, the average age is 30. It feels exciting to be there, but, if you’re much over even 40, you may not feel like you belong. Will an 80 year-old work there someday? It doesn’t seem like it right now. I hope that their hiring practices are examining that disparity.

Let’s also embrace the positive elements of each other’s presence in the work force, too, whether you’re young or not-so-young anymore. Those of us who remember what it was like to work in tech when we had to wear business suits are grateful to today’s millennial staffers for introducing us to much more casual dress in the workplace, although my own mother is a bit horrified at this change. When she saw me on-stage at the hackathon recently, she did not approve of my wearing jeans. For me, this is a wonderful option, as it must be for men who no longer need to wear ties everyday, at least not here in Northern California.

The last thing I’d like to say about managing across generations is that management is management. We cannot manage our twentysomething work force any differently than we’d manage a sixtysomething one. Flexible work schedules are something to consider, here, too. I’m not a big believer in facetime or in 9 to 5 clock-punching. This means that, at my company, I pay careful attention to who’s getting his or her work done. I don’t care how or when they do it – just that they do the job for which they’re hired. As more companies adopt this, I think that, naturally, the workforce will have wider age representation. Whether it’s flexibility to work around children’s school schedules or a desire to sleep in a bit later, flexibility is key to managing across generations – not just to hiring a wide and valuable variety of people, but also to keeping them happy. Retention increases as flexibility does, and this, especially is something to consider as we look at managing across generations.

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About Kira Makagon

Kira Makagon is a successful serial entrepreneur and tech industry leader. A graduate of UC Berkeley with both an undergraduate degree in computer science and an MBA, she enjoys sharing her lessons learned from being a veteran “only woman in the room.”

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