Ecommerce, Leadership

IRCE ‘19: Leveraging the Power of Multigenerational Employees

IRCE attracts brand, retailer, and technical experts across all age groups, industries, and countries. Just like any diverse workplace, the audience brings different perspectives and knowledge. Chip Conley, a strategic advisor for Airbnb, discusses how to leverage diverse age groups to grow your enterprise.

By the age of 52, Conley had spent half of his life working in the hospitality industry. At 26 years old, he founded the Joie de Vivre Hospitality group—now the second largest boutique hotel company in the US. Due to his successful career and in-depth knowledge of the hospitality world, he was asked by the three founders of Airbnb to join their team.

Conley had never worked for a tech company, but he jumped at the opportunity to join the company as the Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy for Airbnb. However, he quickly realized his age was the biggest difference between him and his younger colleagues.

“What I decided to do, rather than run for the hills, I actually decided to take that judgment that I could have used, the judgment for the younger people, and turn it into curiosity and see if my wise eyes could match their fresh eyes,” said Conley. In other words, he created an intergenerational pipeline of wisdom to share ideas back and forth.

America’s Youth Dominate Silicon Valley Tech Giants

In the US, just under 40% of Americans have a boss that’s younger than them. Experts believe this statistic will grow to over 50% by 2025. Conley said that when he first joined Airbnb, the average age employee was 26 (it’s now 28). When looking at the silicon valley tech giants, the average employee age is 30.

Of these younger, millennial workers, 75% of them want a mentor, but only 2% have one. Part of the issue could be that, compared to older generations, millennials don’t stay at companies for more than two or three years. Studies show that millennials who plan to stay at a company for more than five years are twice as likely to have a mentor.

The first person Conley hired at Airbnb was Lauren Hughes—a 27-year-old with strong digital intelligence skills but little leadership experience. Hughes realized there was a lot Conley could learn from her, so began the reverse mentoring relationship. (You’re not the only one thinking of the movie The Intern with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.) She improved his technical know-how while he helped her with process knowledge. Process knowledge involves knowing the underlying motivations of people and being organizationally savvy—it’s how you get people in a room to align on an idea.

Process Knowledge vs. Fact Knowledge

“We build our emotional intelligence over time,” said Conley. The older you get, the more you can connect the dots and think more holistically. However, you also start to forget things and are not as quick to ideas. In comparison, younger people are fast and focused. When Chip worked with the founders of Airbnb, all 20+ years his junior, they were able to take 30 strategic initiatives and narrow it down to four.

While the average employee age is getting younger, a new kind of elder is emerging in the workplace. The over 60 labor force has recently grown 35%—making them the fastest growing demographic in the workplace. Many of these employees are as curious as they are wise and are as much an intern as they are a mentor.

How do we create a more collaborative process for learning across demographics? And how do we deal with the demographics in their own point-of-views?

To foster a collaborative environment, Conley suggested mutual mentorship, new hire “buddies,” and skill sharing programs. He also suggests asking people who they seek out for advice or wisdom beyond their boss in the form of an employee satisfaction survey. Conley quoted Jimi Hendrix, “knowledge speaks, wisdom listens.” The responses from the survey will provide you a heat map of where the wisdom lies in your company.

Curious Minds Cultivate Collaboration

In 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker.” A knowledge worker is broadly defined as someone that continuously seeks new information and shares their wisdom with other people. Drucker wrote 40 books in his lifetime, two-thirds of which he wrote after he reached 65 years old. Every two years, he studied a new subject, with his top passion being curiosity.

The session room at IRCE is full of “knowledge workers,” said Conley. Every IRCE attendee has a world of knowledge in their pocket (their iPhone or Android). However, Conley wants to change Drucker’s coined term to “wisdom worker.” Wisdom transfers from old to young and young to old. The same can be said for heritage, brick-and-mortar brands and digitally native brands. Digitally native brands have the technical knowledge to create an optimal online customer experience. But brick-and-mortar brands have the process knowledge. They know their customers at a human level and better understand their motivations.

Conley ends with, “As a final thought here, whether it’s someone in a different generation or whether its someone who has a completely different background than you, ask yourself over the next couple of days, ‘who could you create a short term mutual mentor relationship with?’”

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Shannon Kenneally
After graduating from Clemson, Shannon started her career in marketing, focusing on content creation and engagement. As Blue Acorn iCi’s Media Marketing Specialist, she keeps clients and customers up-to-date on the latest trends and news in the ecommerce world. In her free time, she enjoys running with her dog and checking out the local breweries in Charleston.
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