Harnessing the power of baby boomers

Flex-work, project work, continuous learning important retention tools
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/12/2012

Harnessing baby boomers: Michael Adams, president of research services firm Environics, shared findings from his recent research on harnessing baby boomers in the workplace at a recent Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto. He also led a panel discussion about how employers can most effectively retain older workers. For more information, visit www.scnetwork.ca

Baby boomers aren’t all alike (Organizational Effectiveness)

Focus on generational similarities not differences (Leadership in Action)

Will employers recognize boomers’ potential? (Strategic Capability)

Over the past few years, executives at AltaGas in Calgary noticed older employees in the field were burning out and no longer wanted to work on a full-time basis.

To deal with this, the company developed policies and practices around job-sharing, said Barbara Jaworski, CEO of the Workplace Institute in Toronto.

“They are leading the way for organizations, making sure that the policies and practices that we’ve heard about for years are actually working for older workers to maintain the highly technical skills they need out in the field. That’s a really big breakthrough in the oil and gas industry.”

Flexible working — including job-sharing — is the area where firms have the biggest opportunity to engage and retain baby boomers, said Jaworski, speaking at a Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) event in Toronto in March.

Other flex-work solutions include telecommuting, flexible schedules or part-time, contract or casual work.

“They probably don’t want to fight rush hour going to and from work, so give them flexibility on when they show up and leave,” said Michael Adams, president of research services firm Environics in Toronto, also speaking at the SCNetwork event. “And give them flexibility on vacations — they might want to take that trip to Machu Picchu and that may take three weeks.”

Additional flexibility is of particular interest to workers over age 55 because they seek a more well-rounded life, said Eleanor Lester, principal of organizational performance firm Metanoia in Toronto, and also a speaker at the event.

One option is to allow employees to work additional hours throughout the year and bank the time, which they can then use to take an afternoon off, said Heather Colquhoun, a founding partner of management consulting firm Lighthouse NINE Group in Toronto, who has a client that has implemented this program.

“People are taking the time for all different reasons — some folks are picking up kids from school, some are taking aging parents to doctors’ appointments, some folks are taking their grandkids out and some are pursuing a hobby. So it appeals broadly,” she said, adding these types of programs should be available to all employees, not just boomers.

Baby boomers (born 1946-65) represent 35 per cent of Canada’s working age population. This is expected to jump to 48 per cent by 2015, according to Statistics Canada. And almost one-half (49 per cent) of baby boomers intend to do some work during retirement, said Adams, based on research from his firm.

Baby boomers are most interested in project-driven work.

“They don’t want to do admin work anymore, they don’t want to supervise people, hire and fire people or do any of that. They want to work on projects with a beginning, a middle and an end,” he said.

And for retired boomers, they are most likely to come back to a workplace where they were passionate about their work and respected.

“If you loved your job and the people there and they were willing to treat you with respect and say, ‘Come back, mentor people, lead some projects on your own time,’ you’ll come back,” said Adams. “If you really didn’t like your job, you’re not going to come back — you’re going to coach little league hockey or build that cottage.”

To effectively harness baby boomers, the workplace culture has to be one that truly values older workers and understands what they can contribute to the workplace, he said.

“If they get the sense you don’t really want them, they’re gone — they have other choices.”

Continuous learning is also a top priority for baby boomers, said Colquhoun, also a speaker at the event. Unfortunately, in many cases, training has been built on practices and methods suited for employees under the age of 50 and does not take into account some of the special training and learning needs of older workers, said Lester.

“For example, training for someone under 50 can happen all in one big, concentrated chunk, but over 50 needs to have a concentrated chunk, then a space, then another hit, then some space, then another, and they will end up learning as much and probably be able to apply more. But they need to learn differently,” she said.

Mentoring programs, either formal or informal, not only help boomers feel valued but are a good opportunity for them to transfer their knowledge, said Colquhoun.

“It’s the context, the information, the organizational history they have but it’s also some of those intangibles (such as) how do you greet a client, how do you maintain a client relationship?” she said.

While organizations would find it useful to have some of these different programs in place, they should communicate with their boomers and ask them what they really want and need, said Jaworski.

“They will give you the answers in your organization about what you should be doing,” she said. “Depending on what industry they’re in, what workplace culture they’re in, what city they’re in, they’ll have their own ideas. It’ll surprise you — just ask them.”

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SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

Baby boomers aren’t all alike (Organizational Effectiveness)

By Ian Hendry

To suggest the boomer cohort is one large, homogenous group is like suggesting our federal political parties think alike.

The legendary Woodstock music festival didn’t attract or engage every boomer, according to Michael Adams, president of Environics, whose research identified four distinct tribes within the cohort.

The “disengaged Darwinists,” who represent 48 per cent of the cohort, have “looked on as their rebellious peers have taken up most of the cultural oxygen from the 1960s to the present,” he said.

So, developing a boomer strategy isn’t easy and perhaps explains why so few firms seem to have one. Or perhaps it’s because current leaders are boomers and they assume they don’t have to explain themselves. Our teenagers sometimes think this way too, so it’s likely not generational.

That said, many organizations have seen the need to train managers about the complex X and Y generations but very few, it seems, have a coherent multigenerational strategy. So, is it necessary?

Adams’ research is enlightening. Boomers believe they have about 20 more years to be productive. Sure, there are a few who would retire tomorrow to retreat to the peace and quiet of their backyard, but many others have a lengthy bucket list, including such challenges as Machu Picchu.

It reminded me of Gabriel García Márques’s quote: “It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop pursuing dreams.”

Boomers aren’t about to grow old and many plan to work in some fashion once an organization puts them out to pasture. The repeal of the mandatory retirement age, together with longer-term employees who understand “the rules of the game,” have many boomers sitting tight and waiting for that sizeable severance.

Many plan to stay, whether by choice or because of financial or other considerations. So organizations face the reality they can no longer slide an older employee, who has drifted along for too many years, out the door. Looked at another way — what a tragic waste of a resource.

How many times has a person in her later years of employment been asked, “What talents are we not utilizing at this organization?” Might she not surprise us with insights concerning her untapped skills and willingness to contribute in some new way?

Organizational challenges around deployment and engagement are no different for this group. So, what are we to do?

The four panelists offered a range of ideas and a good place to start might be to consider whether age stigma exists at your organization. Granted, in some trades where physical activity is a large portion of the job, human strength can reduce over time. Perhaps redeployment (brains versus brawn) is an alternative. This is not the case, however, in the service sector, since age has little bearing on the ability of boomers to perform tasks.

Having workers who are bypassed or undervalued is more likely a contributing factor to reduced performance over time but, again, this is not a generational issue. Maybe the second step is to evaluate just how much organizational knowledge resides within the generation edging towards the exit.

This is where the fundamental human capital risk makes a boomer strategy indispensable. There are just too many stories of knee-jerk downsizings where terminated employees are brought back because their unique knowledge is absent elsewhere at the organization. What does this say about leaders even knowing, let alone appreciating, the contributions employees are making?

And what unique talents do boomers possess? We talk about diverse teams formulating more ideas and this requires thoughtful consideration as you develop a multigenerational strategy. Don’t forget to explore whether the boomers’ internal and external networks are being tapped effectively.

Ian Hendry is president of the Strategic Capability Network. Until recently, he spent his entire career in the financial services industry, with experience both in Canada and the United Kingdom. After leaving RBC Capital Markets in 2007, he has helped in the startup of companies in the financial and health-care sectors.

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Focus on generational similarities not differences (Leadership in Action)

By Trish Maguire

When it comes to talent management, leaders shouldn’t be focusing solely on how to harness the boomers.

If we accept the view that in good economies talent matters and in bad economies talent matters even more, surely the real opportunity for leaders is in attracting, retaining and engaging an intergenerational workforce.

HR talent strategies have historically focused on having the right people with the right skills in the right place at the right time. But now there is a far more interesting dimension, driven predominantly by generation Y and the baby boomers: A growing need for people to find meaningful and purposeful work.

No single program or policy can be the panacea. This emerging dynamic suggests a new opportunity may rest in creating intergenerational strategies that address people’s most pressing career, life and occupational concerns.

Yes, the recession has delayed the expected flood of retirees. But, more importantly, it has contributed to encouraging people, not just baby boomers, to rethink how they want to live and work. Until recently, age was a chronological condition where people were expected to work until they hit “that time” in their life and retire. Thanks to modern medicine, the middle years are now described as the prime of life and life expectancy has increased significantly. If leaders believe people are mission-critical for the organization, then it’s time to put the word “retirement” out to pasture and explore and pioneer fresh ideas for talent management strategies.

Imagine the benefits organizations could gain by integrating these myth-breaking facts with additional myth-breaking data such as:

•Different generations have essentially the same values.

•All generations see lack of respect as a key challenge.

•There is no significant difference in motivational factors among the generations.

•Young people are just as loyal to their firms as everybody else.

How many surveys will convince leaders there is a growing need for:

•balancing work with personal obligations

•reinventing roles where people feel fulfilled

•encouraging personal control and choice with people’s occupational goals

•respecting people’s knowledge and abilities

•encouraging people to expand their talent capacity?

Ultimately, leaders need to build motivating organizational cultures by leveraging intergenerational talent strategies around sameness, not differences.

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions, focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and organizational development in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial organizations and can be reached at synergyx@sympatico.ca.

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Will employers recognize boomers’ potential? (Strategic Capability)

By Karen Gorsline

What company would invest in a resource for 20 to 30 years and then drive it away or pay to have it go away? What company would willingly ignore the opportunity to develop and exploit a known, high-value resource?

This is exactly what companies are likely to do with baby boomers. Companies that have invested in developing people for years are settling for a short-term harvest of the boomers’ intellectual capital and institutional or industry knowledge they have built over decades.

A number of assumptions and paradigms are contributing to squandering a significant opportunity with boomers:

Boomers are not their parents: Boomers are generally health-conscious and will have a longer life expectancy post-age 65. Where their parents might have sought to enjoy 10 years of retirement, the boomers may be looking at 20 to 30 years.

The majority haven’t worked hard physical labour their entire work life and do not necessarily need the same relief retirement once represented. They are also more likely to seek fulfillment as a result of their efforts. Boomers are looking to be productive in the second half of their adult lives.

Younger is not always better: Companies are smitten with youth culture and want to “bring in new blood.” This is particularly tempting when younger people represent cheaper labour.

There is also still a pervasive bias — the “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” syndrome. But the use and adoption of technology by seniors is soaring. The next generation of leadership certainly needs to be developed and ideas from different perspectives can be beneficial. But this renewal should not come at the expense of losing the depth of knowledge and wisdom boomers provide.

Employers that have multiple generations working together can draw from the best each has to offer and cross-pollinate.

HR policies and programs need more than tweaking: Many policies and programs deal with a scenario of full-time employment until retirement, typically around age 65. This scenario is rapidly fading not only as a result of the changing behaviours of boomers but because of pressures younger employees are putting on companies.

Policies and programs need to be significantly revamped to provide flexibility and choice for all workers as they travel along a career path that may be more circuitous than in the past. Performance and career expectations need to be discussed as it is no longer an option to wait it out until retirement — for the employer or the employee.

Strategies, policies and programs are not the magic bullet: Companies that develop a multigenerational strategy and evolve HR policies and programs will clearly benefit. But they will have missed the boat if they do not recognize the same forces at play in the workforce likely represent what is happening with potential customers. Organizations should leverage their intellectual capital to identify and address new business opportunities.

Given the difficult economic climate, companies may feel they can’t afford to carry surplus or expensive resources. But a resource is surplus only if it is not deployed against a valid business opportunity. With more flexible employment relationships, evolved policies and programs and initiatives that make sense from a business investment perspective, that surplus talent can be applied to generate new income and continued return on investment.

Employers can be more competitive in how they address the boomer consumer. They can support sustainability through knowledge transfer and the mentoring of younger workers.

A company wanting to really focus on growth could launch a new line of business that draws on this surplus knowledge and wisdom, such as consulting to global economies not experiencing the boomer phenomena.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. She has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at gorslin@pathcom.com.

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