Most people who head to Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference and Festivals, as I just did, go for the films, bands and the newest, coolest technology. I went for the sessions about new, fulfilling ways to work as a manager and as an employee — especially if you’re a boomer.
When did it become uncool to feel? When did it become taboo to show emotion?
— Ryan Fey, Omelet ad agency, at SXSW
Let me share highlights from three workplace sessions I attended that might lead you to, in the words of Steve Jobs, think different. Even the names of the panels were thought-provoking: Work As We Knew It Is Over — Jobs As Adventures; Leading With Love: The Future of Emotional Leadership and The Boomer Millennial: A Retiree Becomes an Intern.
Work As We Knew It Is Over
The first session was led by three high-powered women from the human resources world: Patty McCord, a consultant to startups who formerly worked at Silicon Valley firms such as Netflix and Sun; Colleen McCreary, chief people officer at the video platform VEVO; and Beth Steinberg, former head of people at companies like Facebook and Nike, whose Mensch Ventures now helps companies with talent issues.
They believe managers should spend less time fretting about employees quitting and more time, as McCord said, “creating an organization that’s a great place to be from, so if you had my company on your resumé, it would mean something.”
McCreary said employers should train managers to make clear to their underlings that “my job as a manager is to get you to your next job and if I’m not doing that, tell me so I can prepare you.”
In other words, a manager and an employer are not failures if an employee leaves to pursue new opportunities.
In fact, they said, it’s a mark of success for the manager if the departing staffer thinks “I got what I wanted here and now I’m ready for something else.” In other words: a career is a journey and, Steinberg noted, “as you progress through that journey, it’s important to have clarity about what makes you fulfilled at work.”
The speakers lauded companies like Zynga with strong networks of alums who converse virtually in Facebook and LinkedIn groups and in person at periodic reunions. “I tell people: it’s not what you know or who you know, it’s who knows what you know,” said McCord.
The SXSW audience was also told that managers (especially boomer managers of Millennials) need to give up the notion that leaving a job after two years is a negative and the kind of person who does is a disloyal job hopper.
“That’s not necessarily the case at all,” Steinberg said. “People leave jobs for many reasons. If they’re not gaining the experience they want, that’s fine.” They should quit.
Steinberg also said that in today’s “jobs as adventures” world, worker bees and managers should view careers as checkerboards more than ladders. “It may mean you have to move to a different company or industry, and that’s OK. You’ll come out in a much stronger position than if you focus only on titles,” she said.
Emotional Leadership: Time for a Hug?
The “emotional leadership” session reminded me of the famous George H.W. Bush line to New Hampshire primary voters: “Message: I care.”
That was what speakers Doug Zanger (North America editor at large at the global media platform The Drum); Kristi VandenBosch (chief digital officer at Meredith Xcelerated Marketing); Ryan Fey (co-founder and chief brand officer of the Omelet ad agency based in Los Angeles) and Terry City (senior vice president for brand partnerships at Dose Media) wanted managers to convey to their employees. They specifically hoped boomer and Gen X managers would tell it to Millennial staffers.
Their plea: Workplaces need more hugging. A lot of hugging. Never mind that some people don’t go in for that and some employment lawyers advise against it for fear of bringing on a lawsuit. (Moderator Zanger, a Gen X’er, opened the discussion by asking audience members to stand up and hug the person next to them. Later, most attendees confided that they don’t work at “loving companies.”)
“When did it become uncool to feel? When did it become taboo to show emotion?” asked Fey. He said he believes managers should treat colleagues “the way you treat your mom, dad, and brother, adding: “Why should you treat your co-workers any differently? You’re with them more often!” The key to the world, Fey added, is empathy.
And boy, do we need this style of management these days, the panelists said. “It’s more important to give love than it ever has been,” said Zanger.
The concept of leading with love, however, may be somewhat foreign to boomer managers brought up with the “There’s no crying in baseball!” mentality about the way people should behave on the job. When asked how to turn boomers into emotional leaders if this style doesn’t come naturally to them, Zanger conceded: “That’s not something we’ve addressed yet. Everybody in our company is young.”
Nevertheless, the panelists said, staffers not only like it when bosses want to know how they’re doing and feeling, this management philosophy is good for business. “People stay with you because of this responsiveness,” said VandenBosch, a self-described “tail-end boomer.”
City, a Gen X’er who said he has been “the old curmudgeon” surrounded by Millennials at work, added: “You create an environment where people want to come to work… People really appreciate it when you care. They respect you for it and will bend over backwards for you because you were human to them in situations that everyone goes through.”
City noted that he looks for kind souls when interviewing job candidates. “I’ve turned away many candidates who were rock stars at what they did, but I could sense they were an asshole,” he said. “One person who comes in like that can disrupt everything. They can become a cancer. So I ask questions that can lead to answers where I can judge what kind of person they are.”
But, VandenBosch noted, there is one “bad” part of emotional leadership: “It can be exhausting!” VandenBosch recalled the time when a young, crying female staffer and she were tightly holding onto each other in the office bathroom because the Millennial’s dog had died. “At one point, she said: ‘This feels really good’ and we stood there 10 minutes until she was done,” said VandenBosch.
At emotional companies, she noted, “there’s a lot of crying — way more men cry than women in my office. It’s OK to be vulnerable in office culture; that wasn’t the case 15 years ago.”
It’s important, however, to understand what emotional leadership isn’t, the panelists warned. It’s not about holding Taco Tuesdays or Happy Hours in the office. “Just because you have Happy Hour, that’s not a culture,” said City, calling this his biggest pet peeve of corporate leaders.
How exactly do you create a huggy environment when some colleagues work remotely and can’t be hugged? “Get on the phone every so often with them,” said Zanger. “I work remotely; my team is in Pennsylvania and New York and Scotland and London. Trying to be on the phone with them for even five minutes makes such a massive difference.”
The Boomer Millennial at Pfizer
What really happens when a retired 69-year-old man becomes a corporate intern, the way Robert De Niro did in The Intern? Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer found out by bringing in Paul Critchlow for the summer after he’d retired as a top Merrill Lynch communications exec and was feeling bored. (Fast Company published an excellent story and video about it last fall.)
As Critchlow told the the Boomer Millennial session, before his $18.25/hour Pfizer internship started, “I was literally picking up trash along the roadside near my [Sag Harbor, Long Island] house every morning. That’s how I was spending my time.” (His internship pay, by the way, was the same as what Pfizer college interns earned, which is what Critchlow told corporate communications chief Sally Susman he wanted. He spent the wages on business suits for work.)
At Pfizer, Critchlow worked in the corporate communications office four days a week — three in the office bullpen alongside the three college interns as he insisted, and one day at home. At first, the other interns didn’t know what to make of him and were a little intimidated by his presence.
So the former Vietnam Purple Heart recipient and investment banker employed humor to break the ice. “One of the interns said: ‘I noticed you’re from Omaha. My grandmother grew up and lives there.’ I said: ‘What’s her name?’ and she told me. I said: ‘I dated her in high school.’ She shrieked and I said, ‘No, I’m just kidding.’
Over time, Critchlow and the interns said, they learned from each other.
He gained knowledge of how to use Facebook, blog and make videos; how the pharmaceutical businesses operate; the meaning of phrases like “on fleek” and the need “to shorten my stories a little.”
Critchlow said the biggest lesson he learned: “If you can put boomers and Millennials together in the same place and with the right setting and conditions, it’s amazing how they spark each other. Every day, I was coming away with fresh ideas. It was extremely reinvigorating.”
The interns were taught the importance of patience, of thinking about their long-term futures and of showing respect to others (USC intern Sophie Spallas was struck seeing Critchlow stand up to greet people and shake their hands). They also said as part of his mentoring, Critchlow told them that it’s OK to make mistakes at work and in their personal lives and not to worry so much about them.
“I went in thinking of my fellow interns as younger and as the summer went on, we thought of ourselves as colleagues,” said Critchlow. “It was really as though there was no age difference at all.”
I’m glad Pfizer ran this experiment that it was a success. (Susman said “it surpassed my expectations” and that she is swamped with resumes from the “70-plus set” for this coming summer.)
But the session made me wonder two things:
Why did Pfizer and SXSW seem to treat a boomer intern as something like an alien from another planet?
And what about unemployed boomers who want full- or part-time jobs that pay them a living wage, but can’t get in the door for an interview? As Spallas said, Critchlow made the interns realize “that you don’t have to stop working when you’re 70.” (Kudos to firms that do hire people in the second half of their lives, including fashion firm Bellissima — read the new Meredith Maran book excerpt on Next Avenue about her experience getting a job there at 60.)
At the session, I asked the second question to Susman and Critchlow.
Said Susman, who conceded that there is still age bias at some employers: “It’s heartbreaking to get resumés from very good, talented, hard-working people who seem to have been dismissed or discriminated (against) by big companies. Those individuals have done nothing wrong. We need to wake up companies to what they’re missing… At Pfizer, the hardest-working person on my team is 70 and he works 24/7 like most of us.”
Critchlow’s answer to my question may surprise you: “I have a radical suggestion,” he said. “I think people in their 60s and 70s who want to get back to the workforce need to change their expectations of what they will end up with. By that, I mean, I wouldn’t go in looking for a full-time job and expect to be paid what I did at the peak of my career. That’s not just not going to happen. Offer to work as an intern or part-time. You have to go in with a different approach.”
I guess that’s just another way of saying that Work As We Knew It Is Over.
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