Wednesday, November 05, 2008

WLA 2008: The Cross Generational Workforce

My first session of the 2008 conference was The Cross Generational Workforce presented by Rachel Singer Gordon, author of The NextGen Librarian's Survival Guide. Rachel started off her presentation telling a family story about how one day her husband was given an egg on a plate of pasta. Not sure why he was given egg he asked his mother "why an egg?" The response (not an explanation) was "Everybody likes an egg". Now while this story brought back memories of my Italian family and the many times I got an egg, the point was that we often do things without knowing why and that even when someone asks why respond with "Everybody Likes an Egg". This was the first of many things that hit home for me during this well paced and presented session.

The session was about how we can all work across generations. We need to start with the idea that while we have the generational boxes:
  • Veterans (1922-45)
  • Boomers (1946-64)
  • Generation X (1965-78)
  • Millennials (1979-2000)
we need to understand that none of us fit exactly into one of these boxes and that we should value that we grew up with different experiences.

Generational issues are touchy issues, but are important to talk about because they:
  • can lead to conflict
  • intersect our changing profession
  • affect succession planning
Much of what Rachel presented to us seemed like common sense and were things that we have been told since we were kids, but yet we need to hear them again. She reminded us that it is important to look at our own assumptions, to seek out colleagues at all levels (we can be clickish), and to be professional and consider how we treat each other.

Rachel pointed out that we have a changing profession and that we should make sure that we innovate or we are at risk of fading away. Relating the example of Polaroid, not changing when digital photography started to loom on the horizon leading to their downfall, Rachel suggested that we consider flattened management structures (participatory management) and that we should sit down with various levels of people in our organizations (especially newer people) to see what they think about how we could be doing things differently.

With our changing profession and the fact that 58% of librarians will turn 65 by 2019, we need to start thinking about succession planning. We don't know when this 58% will retire, but it will happen in a wave and we need to start planning. We need to think about it when we are hiring staff and we need to think about it in the retention of our current staff. Many comments that Rachel received in her survey was that NexGens were leaving their positions because they feel that their talents aren't valued and that their knowledge is discounted.

So how do you do it? How do you keep these talented people? Create a healthy workplace for ALL staff, encourage people to work together, and get input from multiple groups. One of the most basic answers is something that we have been taught as young child "Treat others as you want them to treat you." If you treat people well they are more likely to stay. Consider vertical teams for projects. If you create opportunities for people to work together then people are exposed to the strengths of each other and it creates opportunities for people to lead.

The session was concluded with the idea that each librarian, new or experiences, old or young, brings valuable experiences, perspectives and skills to the organization. Something that we should all remember.

Additional selected resources:

For Further Reading
  • Bennis, Warren G. and Robert J. Thomas. Geeks & Geezers: How Era, Values, and Defining Moments Shape Leaders. Boston: HBS, 2002.
  • Gordon, Rachel Singer. The Accidental Library Manager. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc. 2005.
  • ---. The NextGen Librarian's Survival Guide. Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc., 2006.
  • Young, Arthur, Peter Hernon, and Ronald Powell. "What Will Gen Next Need to Lead?" American Libraries May 2004: 32-5.
  • Young, Arthur and Steve Casburn. "Gen X Bites Back. American Libraries Sept. 2004: 43-5.

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