If you tuned into the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics, you may remember the moment captured in the photo above: Tyson Gay, the fastest U.S. runner at the time, dropped the baton in the men’s 4 X 100 relay, and the U.S. was disqualified from the race.
Same thing happened to the women.
On paper, the USA had the fastest teams. We should have breezed through the qualifiers and been running for the gold.
But being a great individual runner doesn’t matter if you haven’t practiced handing off, or aren’t focused on the team’s goal, or aren’t communicating with your running mates.
Being good on paper doesn’t win races.
This is a great metaphor for the intergenerational “hand-off” we need to see more of in our companies and communities.
I see Baby Boomers who’ve been community or organizational leaders for 20, 30, 40 years. They are getting tired, and the Great Recession beat the hell out them. They were the leaders to whom everyone turned for the answers in 2009-2010...but there were no answers.
Here are three things keeping Boomers from handing off the baton to the next generation:
- They don’t want to give up the baton. They like the power or paychecks that come with holding it. (Illustration 1: Jay Leno.)
- They don’t know how to do a proper handoff, e.g. they don’t know how to develop future leaders, or they don’t respect the next generation’s ability to run the next leg of the race.
- Some are so freaked-out by the economy that they just want to throw the baton in the air, and run off the track.
Generation Xers are (presumably) the next generation who’ll carry the baton. In some places, they already are. But Xers have their own set of challenges:
- They’re skeptical of Boomers, and don’t always play well with them.
- Xers aren't sure they’re even running the right race. They’re cynical about whether any of our systems (politics, education, health care, business, non-profits) even work. To them, the track seems to just go around and around in a circle. Is this really the kind of race they want to be a part of?
- Xers see their younger, Millennial teammates getting a lot of attention from the senior, Boomer teammates, fueling their cynicism. Xers wonder if they're even needed on the track.
Then come the Millennials, America’s first truly multiracial generation...and a big one, at that. Are Millennials on the track, warmed up and ready to receive?
Where do you fit in the intergenerational relay? Are you a Boomer ready to make the handoff? Are you an Xer or Millennial eager to receive it?
Remember: it doesn’t matter if you are an awesome individual performer. To keep our companies and cities moving forward sustainably, we have to work together.
Here are four tools every intergenerational team should have in their arsenal:
- Practice. We need to practice solving problems inter-generationally. Think about the last city council meeting you attended (if you went.) Were Traditionalists, Boomers, Xers and Millennials working on problems side by side? The principle of intergenerational equity asserts that today's generations must not act in ways that knowingly harm future generations. Do you see this principle at work at the decision making tables in your company? In your community?
- Deep listening. There is no substitute for deeply listening to each other. We all want to be heard, and we all have a lot to learn from each other. In your next meeting, practice deep listening: focus on what the speaker is saying, and remain open to their meaning. When you feel a response rise up within you, ask yourself, “Is this relevant now?” (Read Martina Steiger's 6 Requirements for Deep Listening here.)
- Clarity. Many teams lose races because their goal is not clear. In Kaizen, there is a valuable practice called the “Five Whys” - it helps teams identify the root cause(s) of problems. The Five Whys can help your intergenerational team understand its mission. For example: 1. Why are we meeting? Because we want to build a better mousetrap. 2. Why is that important? Because our current mousetrap stinks. 3. Why does our current mousetrap stink? Because it's built with outdated technology, and doesn't catch mice. 4. Why was it built with outdated technology? Because we were trying to save money, and use technology we already knew how to build. Here, it only took four whys to get to the root cause of the reason the team was meeting: to refine a product line that works better for customers. In your intergenerational teams, asking, “Why?” or “What’s our intention?” is critical. With clarity, people can see their roles more clearly, they are more willing to make an investment of time, and they can be better champions for the team...because they know why.
- Be a good teammate. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I play pickup basketball with a group of guys at a local gym. For the first several months I played, I focused on my game. I was coming back after being out of the gym for 17 years, and I was rusty (and fat.) I felt I needed to prove myself. But sometime in the winter, something shifted, and I started to focus on how I could be a better teammate. How could I be a better passer, and set someone else up for a great shot? How could I play better help defense? How many rebounds could I help turn into fast breaks? Yes, I still take my shot when I’m open, but thinking “we-mind” (How can I make our team better?) instead of “me-mind” (How can I be great?) has helped our team more, overall. How can you set someone up for success, on your intergenerational team?