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Staffing Performance Improvement. How?

performance improvement, management plan, high ideas

Pairings make great (business) sense.

Everyone wants performance improvement, whether it’s high performing projects, high performing companies, or high performing nonprofit organizations.  But how?

One way is to pair the energy and intensity of youthful staff with older workers’ insightful experience.  It’s an idea that’s as old as craft, guilds, and enduring businesses. But, in the rush to be agile and innovative in this web-based business world, this old way is being forgotten… to everyone’s disadvantage.  That’s a shame, because young/old pairing has a big performance improvement payoff.

Today, though, there are young/old pairing obstacles.  Millennials think and act differently and they have up-to-the-minute expectations.  Meanwhile, today’s seniors are coping with their own set of perceptions and pressures.  Managers are busy project managing… but is that what’s most needed when millennials and seniors work together?  Human resources professionals would like to help… but they’re looking over their shoulders at anti-discrimination legislation and the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission’s blunt instrument of disparate impact.

In this article we’ll talk about the opportunities and obstacles to young/old pairings for high performance business… and for social enterprises as well.

We’ll recommend 6 techniques for your management plan to reap the benefits of young/old staffing. Plus, all the while avoiding the pitfalls of expectations, perceptions, pressures, and well-intentioned Government oversight.

Then, we’ll finish off with a tip about where to start your first young/old staffing project.

If this intrigues you, get some coffee and keep reading!  We’ll discuss this at length and in detail.

Performance Improvement Opportunity

So… what can this old idea of young/old pairing do for us today?  Here are 6 potential benefits of this approach.  (Potential?  Absolutely.  It all depends on good execution.)

The pairing combines energy and wisdom.  “Work smart, not hard.”  Frankly, that old saw is hogwash;  we need both.  It’s no secret that we all had a lot of energy when we were 25 years old, and it takes energy to be productive.  But you can double that productivity by working smart; and that’s whats 30 years’ of experience brings.  For instance, we get a 30% increase in productivity simply when we something the second or third time.   It’s also true that rip-out and rework… whether its a software design or a hardware build, wastes a lot of time.  Having an older teammate means that young employees have the opportunity to avoid first-time mistakes, and get cued about what works and what doesn’t.  Avoidance is one of those skills learned on the job, another part of the wise seniors’ experience.

The pairing tempers enthusiasm with experience.  With a lot of years comes a certain matter-of-fact approach to work that banishes crises… but almost any job or project benefits from an injection of infectious enthusiasm.

The pairing produces a hardy kind of grit.  According to Angela Duckworth, grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.  It’s popularly claimed that young people lack grit… is that really true?  More likely, youth doesn’t have sufficient experience of the rewards of patient effort.   Senior employees can supply that patience in healthy doses; they combine well with the intensity younger staff can bring to bear.  That hardy, hybrid grit is what overcomes all sorts of obstacles to move projects from start to finish.

The pairing produces opportunities to leverage IT in unexpected ways.  I’d like to think that older employees can have as good a grasp of new IT as their younger colleagues… but so many surveys say it just ain’t so.   The technology yin of innovation still rests with youth.  At the same time, authorities now realize that IT-driven improvements actually owe as much to process as to technology.   The process yang often rests with more experienced staff; they understand operations and how to introduce and institutionalize change.  It’s that yin-yang so many organizations want and need.  Young/old pairings deliver it.

The pairing fosters sustainable enterprise capability.  Every organization has a formal culture and organization and an informal counterpart.  Both are ingredients in the the organization’s success.  While career paths, development programs and training reinforce the formal, education about the informal takes place face to face, experience by experience.  Seniors show the millennial newcomers how it’s done, who to call, where to get the resources, how to apply effective leverage. The larger the organization, the more important this informal education becomes; we need more light shed on the informal role of mentors, angels and sea daddies.

Performance Improvement Obstacles

However… there are two sides to this coin.  With a host of opportunities come some significant obstacles.  But none is a show-stopper… unless they’re ignored.  (If you’re sketching a management plan for young/old pairings, be sure to include our tips on avoiding the obstacles!)

There’s a clash of attitudes.  Young and old have been working together forever.  However, that hasn’t erased some mutual antagonisms, and today’s economy isn’t helping.

Millennial:  “I’m paying for a very expensive education; I’m qualified for more responsibility right now.”

Senior: “When I was your age…”

Millennial: “What’s my career path?”

Senior: “It’s not through my empty office.”

It’s hard for veterans to appreciate the challenge facing millennials who have to start their working lives carrying a mountain of debt.  Servicing that debt drains away hard-won savings that formerly built a nest-egg for that first house, that first child, etc.  For today’s millennials there’s unrelenting financial pressure to get moving or get stuck.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the career timeline, retirement itself is a moving, changing target… and the most effective response is often to keep working productively.

In older days we’d suggest that seniors were clinging to the corner offices and clogging career paths to senior (read lucrative) management positions.  But what’s really going on is an opportunity shortage.  In a slow-growth economy, only the fast-growth companies create enough opportunities to keep both young and old happy.  To effectively combine young and old, real career issues have to be addressed.

Millennial: “This is a tech project and you don’t know the tech.”

Senior: “The customer buys value and you don’t know the customer.”

Since the start of the industrial age we’ve placed a premium on knowing and applying technology.  Millennials are only the latest generation to grab new tech with both hands.  But seniorsget their grey hair by puzzling out the customer value.  Successful projects need both.

Millennial: “I need to be building my brand.”

Senior: “You mean the company’s brand, don’t you?”

I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the history of work when there were so many ways stand out individually, with so many rewards for individual excellence.  But it still takes time, teams and teamwork to build something that truly scales.  So which approach is best?  Well… these days, the answer is both.  That’s why some of  today’s best places to work offer ways up, through personnel development programs, and ways “out”, through inhouse startup incubators.

Millennial:  “She’s slow, out of touch, and way too concerned about the process.”

Senior: “She shoots from the hip, doesn’t understand the market, and she’s cutting corners.”

Millennial: “I don’t need this aggravation…”

Senior: “I’ve got higher priorities than babysitting…”

There’s nothing new about this kind of bookend grumbling. I started out on one side and I’m ending up on the other.  Curiously, though, a lot of seniors don’t remember what they said before they were thirty.  In a pinch, it’s OK to bluntly remind seniors that they probably said exactly the same thing 30 years ago.  And no one under thirty imagines that they would mature into the grey-haired office ogres they’re grumbling about.

A different management approach is needed.  When young and old are paired for high performing work, the generational divide comes along for the ride.

Attitudes and atmosphere are what need to be managed, as much or more than schedule, budget and quality.  I’ve often felt that every team needs a mother figure, an empathizing authority figure with a matter-of-fact way of restoring perspective.  I think it’s critical for teams using young/old pairing.

Workplace regulations can get in the way.  Current workplace regulations don’t serve young/old pairings… and they can actually be destructive.  Here’s why.

Age discrimination is here and real, as this AARP article makes clear.  This question and answer posting from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shows the broad latitude the Commission gives itself in defining discriminatory practice, including the use of disparate impact tests.

However… the cure seems to be worse than the disease.  Millennials and seniors bring different strengths to high performing teams, and a high performance staffing approach that recognizes those differences skirts the edges of the statute.   Difference is disparity; once disparate impact has been alleged, it is the employer’s responsibility to mount a defense.  For any business or social organization employing 20 people or more, the law applies… and its provisions need to be addressed.

How to Get High Performing Benefits from Young/Old Pairings

Now that we’ve explored high performing opportunities and obstacles, let’s talk about execution.  Here are 6 ways to to nurture high performing teams, and with them, grow a high performing enterprise.

Work project by project to protect your staff.  The whole point of the effort is a high performing workforce.  That means that the core concerns of the millennials and seniors need to be addressed.  Millennials want variety and rapid fire experience; seniors also want shorter timelines where they can demonstrate the continuing value that makes for job security.

On a larger scale, working project by project allows the organization to compartment the tensions of young/old pairings so that they don’t infect everyone.

Finally, working project by project limits the demands on the senior talent pool for mentoring/teaching subject matter experts.  As projects end and new ones begin seniors can be rotated into new young/old pairings

Sometimes it takes bluntness; ask and challenge.  Young/old pairing is a very deliberate high performing project strategy; it takes commitment.  I believe you should ask the stakeholders for it.  Here are 4 questions you can use to reinforce each stakeholder’s commitment:

  • Millennials: “Were you serious when you told me you wanted to grow?  Are you willing to allow yourself the time it takes?”
  • Seniors:  “Are you willing to work yourself out of this project?”
  • Managers: “Are you willing to focus on the product and the team dynamics, instead of project management?

Use Human Resources.  If an organization is large enough to have a dedicated Personnel or Human Resources department, it can render two very valuable services.  First, at the high performing project level, HR can act as a canary in the coal mine, giving project managers quiet feedback about simmering discontent.  Second, at the high performing enterprise level, HR can help craft policies that protect the company from accusations of age discrimination and disparate impact.  (Here’s a way to keep the cart properly behind the horse; develop the HRL policy to respond to experiences with young/old pairings.  There’s no regulatory requirement to have a prior policy in place.)

Ramp up the marketing.  When high performing pairs are the backbone of high performing teams, projects are likely to be completed sooner and millennials, especially, will be eager for more.  So, as you bring that latest product to market, you’ll find internal pressure to keep growing.  That means your marketers need to be ready to unveil the next opportunity, probably on shorter timetables.

Balance rewards and recognition.  In pairings, each half contributes; when it’s time to reward high performing teams, it makes very good sense to recognize the pairs.  First, quietly, poll the millennials and have them do the nominating.  Second, nominate in young/old pairs.  Third, while thinking through the rewards, give equal value to millennials and seniors… but that doesn’t have to mean identical awards.  One might receive cash while the other gets an expense-paid vacation.

Here’s an example of the unintended side effects of overzealous regulation.  Suppose you’re awarding a bonus to a young/old team.  The millennial receives a 10%-of-salary award and the silver a 7%-of-salary award.  The bonus amounts are equal per my recommendation above, but it could be argued that that disparate percentage of salary is an indicator of subtle ageism in the workplace.

Always be ready to abandon the strategy.  This last recommendation pains me, but is very necessary.  We live in an uncertain regulatory climate where every month brings news of “innovative” rule making and “expansionist” interpretations.  For larger organizations especially, the only defense against misguided bureaucratic oversight may be to cease and desist young-old pairings.    (I dearly hope I can erase this recommendation when I update this post.)

Where to Start

If you’re convinced that this kind of young/old pairing will help you improvement performance in your organization, where do you start?

I always like to introduce new ideas by starting small and showing a success at the project level.   Lots of businesses write quotes and proposals and many nonprofit organizations develop grant applications; these are great starter efforts for 3 very good reasons:

  • Quotes, proposals, and grants are often modular documents with short sections.  It’s easy for young/old pairings to work together on a single effort.
  • Products, services, and business processes need to be clearly described and appealingly presented; persuasive writing is, these days, an increasingly desired skill.
  • There’s a clear measure of success (client acceptance), and it’s often possible to get specific feedback that helps the high performing team.  Afterwards, a “win” party with awards makes it easy to recognize top performing pair(s).

Summarizing…

The opportunities are:

  • The pairings combines energy and wisdom.
  • The pairings tempers enthusiasm with experience.
  • The pairings produce a hardy kind of grit.
  • The pairings produces opportunities to leverage IT in unexpected ways.
  • The pairings foster sustainable enterprise capability.

The obstacles are:

  • There’s a clash of attitudes.
  • A different management approach is needed.
  • Workplace regulations and policy can get in the way.

Here’s the way we get the benefits and overcome the obstacles:

  • Work project by project to protect your staff.
  • Sometimes it takes bluntness; ask and challenge.
  • Use Human Resources.
  • Ramp up the marketing.
  • Balance rewards and recognition.
  • Always be ready to abandon the strategy.

One last point:  please remember that successful young/old pairings depend almost entirely on execution.  There’s no magic bullet, just a recognition of the opportunities, obstacles and careful attention to the resulting recommendations.

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5 Comments

  1. Good writing. I used to work with a guy that was twice my age. I was brand new and he was headed for retirement. At first, I thought he was going to be lazy, just counting the days for his retirement party. But he really showed me a lot of things I didn’t know about the business. We got a lot of work done together. Guess you don’t judge a book by its cover.

    • Chris Chadbourne says:

      Allen, thanks for sharing that story! I’ve seen both sides. When I was young I was paired with a much older colleague whose only acknowledged goal was to be the most senior person in the organization. Oh, boy… Then, I had the good fortune to be paired with someone who “wasn’t afraid of a little good work”… and could he work! I’d never seen production like that in my life, and to this day I wish that I’d learned a lot more from him.

  2. Great read. Sounds like an episode of The Odd Couple. In order for an old/young pairing to work, both members have to be already have pre-established ways of attaining a certain goal. Not every duo is going to work out. Maybe they could eventually warm up to one another. But they have to have similar attributes and characteristics in order to even coexist.

  3. Yes you are quite right about the obstacles in the end. “She shoots from the hip, doesn’t understand the market, and she’s cutting corners.” Haha

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