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Wishing a very special 50th anniversary to Plumbing Engineer magazine! What an exciting issue to be included in. When I started to think about what to write for this month, I reflected on what the plumbing industry must have been like 50 years ago. This quickly made me think about some of the local family-owned plumbing businesses near where I live and how they stayed in business from generation to generation.
While I thought I could fill this leadership column with fun plumbing facts from over the last 50 years, I decided to go a different direction and talk about generations in the workplace.
I recently started reading the book “A New Kind of Diversity” by Tim Elmore. In this book, the author talks about the four generations in the workplace today and the challenges that can come from leading all generations simultaneously: baby boomers (1946-1964), Gen X (1965-1982), millennials (1983-2000) and Gen Z (2001-2015).
As a department leader, I have the honor to lead all four of these generations. I’ll be honest; I find it super fun. I never know what my day will bring. Many days are full of laughter and lightheartedness, and some days are full of frustration and not knowing where to go from one minute to the next. However, at the end of it all, my department is a team and a family. We didn’t get there by accident; we got there by doing the hard work to become that way.
Elmore wrote his book to be used as a generation field guide; I found it helpful. He does a wonderful job breaking down the history that shapes each generation and their contributions. The table is his breakdown of steps to connect with and lead each generation.
This list can feel overwhelming, but when we break it down, we can see some themes. One theme I picked up on is that boomers want to be mentors, and millennials and Gen Z are looking for someone to mentor them. This can be tricky because we don’t want the boomers and Gen X to dictate to the millennials and Gen Z, but rather guide them.
In our department, we have a rule that you must come to the table with one attempt at solving a problem prior to asking the question. This is important so that the individual learns to find what resources to use, but also so they have ownership in the work they are doing.
The Team Sets the Agenda
I choose not to run our department meetings. While I am the department leader, I do not feel this is an activity that I need to lead. I take a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting to share any officewide or national information, and the rest of the meeting is based on the content the team feels important to discuss. The agenda is fluid in the topics we cover, and it does change monthly. An example of our agenda:
We set up this agenda to allow for a few things:
1. Allow those individuals involved in councils to talk about the incredible work they are doing;
2. Allow the senior engineers (boomers and Gen X) to talk about things they are encountering and learning on projects;
3. Allow the up-and-coming engineers (millennials and Gen Z) time to talk about something they are working on to gain comfort in talking about technical work, improve their presentation skills and give ownership to their work;
4. Always end meetings with team building. For this team, we landed on reviewing bad movies we’ve seen. The chosen individual writes a little movie review, we watch the trailer and laugh at how bad the movie is.
At one department meeting, I walked in and a small group had organized an activity called “I Like, I Wish, I Worry.” We took the meeting time to write down what was on our minds under these topics. I highly suggest doing such an activity with any team you are a part of. If you feel like your team will not be honest with you in the room, ask someone to facilitate for you.
One thing we learned coming out of the exercise is that individuals wished we talked about staffing more. With my staffing coordinator, I was able to create some charts and graphics to better share how the staffing outlook looks.
It also showed me that several individuals in the group were worried about taking the PE exam. I was able to work with some of the national staff to get better study materials available to all individuals. And we connected newly registered PEs with those looking to take the test for advice, tips, etc.
Mentor the Next Generation
As leaders, we face the continuing challenge of meeting people where they are. This becomes especially challenging when we’re leading those in a different generation than ours. I am a millennial and I love to socialize.
The worst thing for me during the pandemic was being away from my coworkers. Sure, I talked to them on Zoom, but it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t look over at Megan and strike up a conversation about her weekend or the thing I remembered her saying she was going to try for the first time the week before. I just worked.
Are you a leader who sits in an office with a door? To millennials and Gen Z, this makes you feel distant and not in tune with their needs. Yes, I know; you leave the door open, right? Honestly, it doesn’t matter. To those generations, it still feels as if they are bothering you when they need to ask a question or, even worse, they want to engage in meaningful conversations.
The interactions need to feel organic and comfortable or they won’t happen. That is when we start to lose the dedication and hard work of the youngest generations.
Let me stop you right there. Stop rolling your eyes and thinking, “Yet another millennial who has it all figured out.” I do not and I will be the first to admit that to anyone I encounter. I don’t have anything figured out, but what I do have is a team built on trust, honesty and love. When I don’t have the answers, I am surrounded by those who do; together, as a team, we work through whatever comes our way.
It is powerful to be a part of a cross-generational team that all works together, but it was hard work to get there. As a leader, every generation is looking to you to be an example. Start by understanding where they are coming from and go from there. Try asking: How can I help? What do you need from me that you aren’t getting? Just start the conversation. It will be awkward and clunky at first but keep at it; get to your team and what makes them who they are.
I came across a short video on Elmore’s LinkedIn page that resonated with me and I wanted to share as my departing words:
“I want to remind you today of one of the most important, essential jobs every leader has, and that is to mentor other leaders from within the next generation. I think sometimes we don’t do this because we have this lofty stereotype of what a mentor is supposed to look like, but it’s within reach of every one of us. John Crosby said it best when he said a mentor is simply a brain to pick, a shoulder to cry on and a kick in the seat of the pants. Let’s do that for someone else today.”