How to get employees from different generations to work together effectively

Between self-absorbed baby boomers, cynical GenXers, and millennials accustomed to getting a trophy just for showing up, today’s multi-generational workforce can be a management minefield.

Those are the stereotypes, anyway.

The reality is more nuanced: Workers, of course, want many of the same things regardless of their age. And companies need all of them — no matter their generational differences — to work together if they hope to succeed.

That’s a question more employers are wrestling with as their workforces span not just three generations but, increasingly, five, from senior citizens still in the job market to techie twentysomethings just out of school. Designing programs to help span these generation gaps — which at times can feel like gulfs — and to transfer wisdom between older workers and their younger colleagues is increasingly part of the business plan for companies large and small.

At construction giant Suffolk, they’ve launched a “reverse mentoring” program, geared to help older and younger workers learn from each other. It pairs a senior manager with a newcomer, which allows the younger worker to learn the ropes of the business while the older one gains, say, insight into technology.

It keeps the veterans feeling young, too, said Mike Cappellano, a project executive at Suffolk who takes part in reverse mentoring and leads a team with so many twentysomethings he jokingly calls it the Kiddie Corps.

“I tell everyone I’m 29, even though I was born in 1954,” says Cappellano, who coached youth hockey in South Boston for years. Several of his former players — including his son — work at Suffolk today. “We’re trying to teach young people to grow and prosper and be independent.”

As part of that, Suffolk invites younger employees in its Emerging Leaders program into some training programs for senior management, says Kim Steimle Vaughan, Suffolk’s chief marketing and people officer, and makes a point to treat everyone in the room the same. Vaughan remembers a recent quarterly meeting where trainees joined top leadership for a day working on management case studies with a Harvard Business School professor.

“It had a profound effect, putting everyone on equal footing,” she says. “It really helped create some relationships. Had we run two trainings in parallel, we would have missed that opportunity.”

At Keystone Partners, mixing generations is sometimes as simple as carpooling.

The outplacement and career-planning firm takes a very intentional approach to prompting its 120-odd employees in five local offices to get to know one another, regardless of age. At social events, they assign seating across generational and seniority lines. When they drive to out-of-office meetings, they carpool the same way.

“We try to keep it top of mind,” says managing partner Elaine Varelas. “We really want to make sure that every activity and function and meeting is . . . cross-representational. We come up with better ideas that way.”

It’s smart business, too, Varelas says. A company like Keystone works with clients of all ages, and wants its workers comfortable with all of them, to help clients navigate career transitions that can feel very different at age 60 than at age 30. And sometimes younger workers have ideas about communication that would never occur to a senior manager who didn’t grow up in the age of social media.

“We were talking about how to get a message across and someone said, ‘We should tweet it,’ ” Varelas recalls. “Those words would never have crossed my lips, but it was the best answer.”

Of course, millennials don’t just bring social media savvy. They’re the future of the whole operation.

Baby boomers still make up a big chunk of the workforce in many industries, but not for much longer. Half of all financial advisers, for instance, are set to retire in the next decade. That has companies like Concord Wealth Management thinking about ways to transfer their knowledge to a younger generation.

For advisers in their 50s, who often have a roster of good clients but no one to hand them off to, that can mean teaming up with a colleague in her 20s, often for years, to gradually transition the business to the next generation. This sort of succession planning is a huge opportunity, says vice president Matt Logan. It can provide a way for older advisers to slow down a little bit, while younger ones step up, and both learn from each other.

It’s an intimate relationship, a little like a marriage, says Concord Wealth chief executive John Laurito. You have to make sure you have the right match.

“You’ve got to understand social styles, and how people work together,” he says. “We find that sometimes people who make the best teams are very, very different types of people.”

Much like millennials and baby boomers.