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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Davies

The Generation Game

Yesterday I had a really enjoyable meeting with a potential new team coaching client. At the beginning of any coaching intervention there's a process of investigation and chemistry checking where as a coach, I'm seeking to understand whether coaching is the right thing for the client, whether this is the right time, whether the client is sufficiently bought into the idea of coaching (this is particularly important with team coaching where the team leader may not be the person who has engaged the coach, but their buy-in is critical). The final thing we're checking for is whether there's sufficient chemistry between client and coach to make the desired progress.

This process is equally important to the client. Ultimately, in most cases at least, the client or their organisation will be paying for the coaching and so they're ultimately parting with money in order to see some kind of progress or results. The success of coaching relationship really hinges on the quality of the relationship between client and coach, so there needs to be a good foundation. The level of trust, care, challenge, support, creativity and other factors will all play into the way the relationship and the coaching develop, so establishing whether the chemistry is right up front is a must.

The meeting went really well and it was getting late when I left the office, driving over the cobbles of the New Town of Edinburgh in the dusk and reflecting on what we'd discussed. This client is in the property business, but one of the most interesting parts of the conversation we had closely mirrored a series of conversations I'd been having with a recruitment client I've worked with throughout the summer. Work with that client took me to their offices in London, Barcelona, New York and my fabled 40-hour trips to Melbourne and everywhere I went, unprompted, the conversation would eventually move onto a discussion about the current generation of people joining the workforce and the differences between their expectations and those of the generations which preceded them.

Both of these clients have business models where, for the sales staff at least, the earning potential in the roles is high but financial success for the employees has traditionally been built on long hours and hard graft. The crux of the conversation is that the current generation entering the workforce no longer have the same desire, across the board, for the early starts and late finishes and the relentless graft to hit and exceed targets and enrich themselves and their companies. Instead, their bosses see themes of work-life balance, wellbeing and life outside of work as much more at the forefront of their employees minds than earning cold, hard cash.

I've pondered this many times, and naturally, I suspect there are many factors at play. Firstly, there's always the danger of rose-tinted spectacles, particularly when comparing your own group to another. I've no doubt that there are people in the current generation who have the same view and values as the bosses and I've also no doubt that there were those in the bosses generation who didn't have the desire to work every hour of daylight and preferred working to live, to living to work - however our minds often have a way of remembering only those cases which support our existing premise, due to confirmation bias.

Equally, those who have stayed and built careers in the businesses and moved up to leadership positions are likely to have been those who embraced the prevailing culture of long hours and financial enrichment, and we know that the winners write the history books, therefore those who are still around to tell the story of the company are likely to be the ones with that approach.

But I think, at the root, there is some truth to the idea and I believe that part of is it down to a change in the relationship between employee and employer. In the generation of my parents and certainly that of my grandparents, it was much more common to build a career at a single company. With the exception of those who have joined public sector institutions such as those in education, healthcare or policing, I can't think of a single friend of mine who hasn't moved companies multiple times already, before they turn forty. Redundancies, restructures and reshaping of departments and businesses may not be more common than it was previously, but it is certainly much more visible due to the advent of social media. The average person on the street has much more understanding of what organisations are like on the inside, before they join, than they ever have before and this is doubtless impacting on their choices and levels of engagement.

When I joined RBS, I made it through the door JUST before they closed the final salary pension scheme which was a staple of large organisations everywhere in previous generations. These schemes are now almost completely gone to all but existing staff. Within about three years, the terms of that scheme had been stripped back so considerably that when I left 15 years later, my pension was worth half what it should have been, based on the terms I signed up for when I joined. The knowledge that those around me who had already reached the peak of their careers were not being impacted in the same way, as me (I moved through several promotions after the change in Ts&Cs and my pensionable salary was capped each time, whereas longer tenured staff who had already reached the level of the organisation from which they would retire didn't have the same problem) as well as staff who joined after me and therefore missed the final salary pension scheme and instead joined the much less lucrative defined contribution scheme, was something that went unspoken but almost certainly impacted the way newer staff engaged with the organisation.

The gap between average workers pay and CEOs pay is the highest it's ever been and so the belief that 'we're all in this together' has been exploded. It's only natural that those at the bottom of the pyramid feel less connected and less engaged with the success of the organisation vs their own personal lives (where they typically have much more control) than before and perhaps this plays out in a lessened desire to work all the hours god sends. Simon Sinek writes about this beautifully in his lesser-known work Leaders Eat Last.

A mistake I've seen businesses make is to try and be all things to all people, or to project an idealised view of what working for the organisation means, without this being born out in reality. Essentially trying to paint a picture of a culture and environment which appeals to the values and interests of younger generations, while still, in reality, the leadership expect the same values and behaviours from their staff as they exhibited in their time coming up, is a recipe for disaster.

Be honest. Decide what you want your organisation to be, what your employee value proposition is and what you expect from people who work there and make that explicitly clear when people join. Don't Catfish people into joining by appealing to their values when those don't align with your own. Don't have table tennis tables and beanbags to chill out on, then tut and frown when people use them. Just tell them what it's like and what you expect and if things have to change for some reason, be honest and let people opt in or out. That way there's much less likelihood of a clash of cultures down the line.

And when it comes to the individuals you're directly responsible for, take the time to understand their motivations and desires and be honest about where you and the organisation can help meet those and where you can't. And what's the best way to understand the motivations of your team? Just ask!

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