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The Gen Yer is brash, the boomer is company-loyal. How can they work together? Add to ...

It's not easy being the boss's son.

Bill Bell, president of Bud's Spas and Pools in Ancaster, On., which was founded 43 years ago by his dad, Bud, says he struggled to prove his worth to his dad. "When you start in a small business run by your father, you're not someone who knows anything," he says.

"They'll listen to anything anyone else tells them over you. You're just their kid."

Now that Bill's son, Andrew, a 21-year-old university student, is working for the family firm installing and servicing hot tubs and swimming pools, Mr. Bell is discovering what it's like on the other side. "I think I'm the same way as my dad was," he says. "I send other kids I hardly know off in my trucks but I have a hard time taking information from Andrew. And he's not stupid."

While multi-generational workforces have always been the norm for family businesses and on farms, they're increasing becoming the same in bigger companies. Today, it's not uncommon to have baby boomers, Gen Xers, Gen Yers and Gen Zers - the children of Gen Xers and the younger boomers - all working together.

Finding ways to effectively manage workplaces staffed with people of different ages is becoming top of mind for companies, says Laurie Hillis, president of Calgary's Megatrain Inc., which specializes in executive coaching and leadership development. "Every organization I work with has this on their radar," she says.

It's particularly challenging for young, inexperienced managers supervising older employees.

Dana Dramnitzke, a partner in the consulting firm HR Transformations in Toronto, says companies should support younger managers with training, to help them compensate for their lack of experience. Often, younger managers can naively believe their sheer brilliance will be enough. "You have to learn early on that technical intelligence doesn't lead to management success," she says.

Ms. Dramnitzke also advises young managers "not try to be a friend" to their subordinates, but instead move quickly to create goals, set expectations and implement regular meetings with direct reports. This sends the message that "I may not have much experience but I know what a good manager does and I'm showing it," she says.

One way to support young managers is to pair them with a mentor who is from the same generation as the group the person is leading. "If you have a Gen Yer managing baby boomers, get an experienced boomer manager to coach them one-on-one," Ms. Dramnitzke says. "Companies need to develop a network of multi-generational managers so people have reference points, and it's not just a Gen Y manager going to other Gen Y managers for advice."

Establishing mentoring relationships between people of different generations can help all employees, Ms. Hillis says. Often "you see less tension between the youngest workers and those old enough to be their grandparents." It can be effective, she notes, to couple them - with young workers perhaps helping the veterans get up to speed on technology and environmental issues, and older workers helping youngsters develop technical skills they're lacking and coaching them on social behaviour appropriate for their workplace.

Smaller firms, which by their nature require people to pitch in anywhere help is needed, are ideally suited for mentoring relationships, Ms. Hillis says. Cross-training is also an effective retention tool for all generations, as learning new skills keeps work interesting and opens up more career opportunities. "There has to be something out there that people feel they can go towards. They don't want to be in a dead-end job."

And while older workers stereotypically complain that young people have a poor work ethic, it's more likely that people from Gen Y and Z have different perceptions of what hard work looks like, Ms. Dramnitzke says.

"Younger workers see commitment measured in results," she says. For them, it doesn't matter how or where the work gets done, whereas oldest workers may measure commitment partly in results and partly in being seen doing it.

Mr. Bell sees this at his pool company. At peak season, Bud's has about 35 employees, half of whom are students. Others are seasonal workers and retirees from Hamilton steel companies. Mr. Bell says the generations get along fine, but the older workers, who tend to arrive for work a half-hour early each day, "don't get" why the students blow in at 7:25 a.m. for a 7:30 a.m. start. But "when they're here, they're working," he adds.

Similarly, younger workers expect to be able to answer personal texts on the job, "and they don't see anything wrong with that," which irritates older colleagues, he says.

Texting is a touchy subject, Ms Dramnitzke says. She thinks older workers are unfairly characterized as being technology-averse, when it's more about a person's communications preferences.

"The younger generation is adept and comfortable with doing their primary communication through electronic means - texting, and such. They are very comfortable building relationships with other people electronically."

Boomers, on the other hand, are capable e-mailing and texting, but feel face time is important.

A young boss of older workers, for example, should be taught to use multiple channels of communication "and not to expect their older reports to immediately respond to texts sent at 9 p.m. at night," she says.

Similarly, older workers with a younger manager "may have to learn to check their texts from time to time," Ms Dramnitzke says. "Both sides have to adapt."

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