Don't Be a Stereotype
How useful can a description meant to represent an ethnically, socially and gender-wise diverse generation of people really be?
VP & Controller, Mattersight
over the course of my career in corporate finance, I’ve been fortunate to develop some very diverse teams. I believe strongly in workforce diversity in all its aspects—age, gender and ethnicity, to name just a few.
From a performance standpoint, there are major competitive advantages to diversity (perhaps that’s a column for another day). There also can be major obstacles to achieving it, one of which is the pervasiveness of generational stereotypes.
Stereotypes—they’re widely held and, by necessity, oversimplified ideas about the groups they represent. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would venture to say that the majority of people feel stereotyping is a questionable thing. Yet, when was the last time you made it through the week without running across at least one article or headline about Millennials, Baby Boomers or Generation Xers? This one is a personal pet peeve of mine, and while mine may be an unpopular opinion, that’s never stopped me before.
Any list of a generation’s characteristics is, at best, a description of an average member of that generation. As I recall, statistically speaking and for all practical purposes, no one is average.
Yet generational stereotypes prevail in the media, and unfortunately that means they find their way into the workplace as well. It’s challenging enough to take on a new role on a new team, but it’s even more difficult if you have to combat stereotypes, particularly those with the negative attributes often ascribed to a specific generation. Even a great manager can only do so much to help you make a smooth transition to a new team. So what can you do to make that transition easier?
I’ll start by stating the obvious: The key is to minimize irrelevant differences and emphasize similarities instead.
For one, forget your age. This may seem trite, but new team members often surprise me with their belief that communicating their age is a means to convey experience or potential. I’ll just say that as long as you’re old enough to join the team for a beer after work, your age is irrelevant.
Unless you know with certainty that it will be positively perceived, your age is better left unsaid. If age does come up in conversation, emphasize experience instead. To avoid any awkward moments, prepare a response to give if the topic does indeed arise. I’ll give you an example: A CFO I previously worked with once asked me my age at a dinner with colleagues. I simply told him that I rounded everything to the nearest thousand just like the company’s financial statements (bad accounting humor).
If you don’t feel that you have a lot of relevant experience, emphasize the nature of that experience rather than the amount. Save the big age reveal for when you reach the executive suite and your age is disclosed in the company’s annual report. By then your experience and accomplishments will speak for themselves.
Also strive to establish connections beyond your generational peer group in order to broaden your perspective. While it may be easier to find common ground with those near your demographic, you can learn so much from those who have had different experiences than you, whether less or more. It will help you appreciate situations from multiple viewpoints and prepare you to lead large, diverse teams—perhaps in areas outside of your current expertise—as you progress through your career. To date, one of the most rewarding opportunities of my career came when I had the chance to stretch beyond financial accounting into operations with an assignment that called for me to lead a very diverse team of amazing people. The team’s experience spanned almost 40 years across many global industries, serving many different customer types.
My best piece of advice is this: Act with an attitude of acceptance and you eliminate any challenges others may have in accepting you as one of the team. That said, it may take a few weeks and possibly even months before you feel you’ve reached that milestone. I’ve found that the amount of time it takes for a new team member to integrate with the team is inversely correlated with how much and how effectively they communicate. Communicating positive intent through a willingness to learn and to help can quickly diminish resistance and bridge a world of differences.