On Leadership

To mind the gap, you have to take the first step.

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When my 18-year-old daughter and I went to the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was this was a huge outdoor music event with big-name artists—Beyoncé, the Weeknd and Eminem—plus a lineup of, well, to be honest, who knows.

Yet before I could listen to what became some of the top performances—Tank and the Bangas, Moon Boots, PVRIS, Magic Giant and Big Thief—first I had to open my mind to a totally new experience. I didn’t steer my daughter to one act or the other. Instead, I let her lead and I followed. I can now say I have an appreciation for electronic dance music (known as EDM) that I never thought I’d have.

Everywhere I looked, Coachella was diversity and demographics on display—a visual reminder of today’s workforce. Most important, I was reminded once again that you have to meet people where they are—not where you are.

As the father of five who range in age from 25 to 18, and as the head of a firm that’s about half millennials, I’m constantly aware of the importance of “minding the gap.” It’s up to me to take the first step to bridge it. Otherwise, the generation gap becomes a chasm.

Yes, millennials are different from previous generations. One obvious way is their preference to text first and talk later. A recent survey from our firm found that, to no surprise, 83 percent of millennial managers prefer to communicate with their direct reports by some digital means rather than face-to-face or by phone. Beyond the personal preferences of these digital natives, there is a business rationale. With everything moving so quickly, non-digital communication simply can’t keep up when instantaneous feedback is required and decisions are being made in real-time. Add to that the global workplace with no “off hours.” And, face it, businesses aren’t spending money for teams to get together when Skype and other digital means can do.

And I’m always amazed by how many emails and texts I receive, including in business, that are populated with emojis. I received one with a bizarre expression that had me puzzled. Was that a smile, a frown or a gas bubble? I don’t know, you tell me:

I can’t let these little faces stand between me and those who are trying to connect with me.

The generation gap is nothing new—it’s as old as humanity itself. But the accelerated pace of change and the pervasiveness of technology today can make the gap seem wider.

If my dad were alive today, he would be 102 years old. That’s four-and-a-half decades older than me—and nearly the same age span between me and my youngest child. When it comes to values and viewpoints, though, my dad and I were much more aligned than I am with my youngest daughter.

And yet other things are timeless—what matters most to people of any generation. All of us want to be accepted, to be loved and cared about, to be stimulated and engaged in what we do. Here’s the common ground that can bridge an ever-widening generation gap. Finding this span of commonality will become increasingly important as people live longer and work longer. In the near future, a four- or even five-decade age span in the workplace will become the norm.

My advice as a leader is the same as my experience as a parent at Coachella: Just go with it. To bridge the gap, drop your biases and filters. Sometimes you lead from the front, sometimes from behind and sometimes from beside—but no matter where you are, you are always learning and growing.

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