Embracing all generations in the workplace
20th April 2023 | Alf Janssen
This paper has been adapted from the author’s Masters project and discusses how leaders can best cultivate “superpowers” that are applicable to multi-generational organisations and teams.
During my time at the SAP Global Platinum Customer Unit in Walldorf (Germany), I was invited for a meeting with the Dutch SAP Managing Director. During that meeting he offered me the job of Sales Director for the strategic customer segment, while taking an active role in the Dutch management team. My rich background with many of these Dutch accounts combined with my experiences at the Platinum Customer Unit made me the ideal profile for the role.
When I started a new role in January 2020, I soon realized it came with huge responsibilities. I lead a team of nine senior salespeople, responsible for relationships with customers like Shell, Unilever, Philips, Signify, Heineken and ASML. Most of my team members were from the Baby Boom (1946-1964) and Gen X (1965-1980) generation. As members of the Millennial Generation (1981–1996) already outnumbered their predecessors in the workplace, I wondered if my leadership skills would resonate with all generations. Many people talk about the impact of generational differences, which made me wonder if it is a myth or a reality.
During the SAP Netherlands annual kick-off meeting in January, I presented my research on the value of purpose. As I expected that purpose would resonate better with Millennials, it felt like a good opportunity to validate if their values and beliefs truly differ. During the presentation I shared my story around how a purpose-driven strategy can meaningfully impact top-line growth, win the war for talent and strengthen brand loyalty.
After the session, many Millennials reached out to me asking if I had vacancies in my team. The focus on purpose-led partnership with our customers touched their hearts. This experience strengthened my determination to further explore the differences across generations. I felt that by first understanding, and then embracing the differing values and beliefs that make each generation unique, I would be able to create opportunities that offer competitive advantages for SAP, my team and our customers.
When exploring the different generations, I came across many different descriptions and definitions. To avoid confusion, I have decided to use the definition from Purdue University:
- Traditionalists (1925-1945)
- Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
- Generation X (1965-1980)
- Generation Y/Millennials (1981-2000)
- Generation Z/Digital Natives (2001-now)
The aim of my research has been to demonstrate conclusively that the differences amongst generations impact sales teams. At the time of writing this paper my sales team consisted of experienced colleagues from Generation X and Baby Boomers. As part of this research, I wanted to understand if Millennials (and potentially Generation Z) expected different behaviour and focus from our organization and the leadership team. What role do they see for business leaders like me to serve as agents for positive change? The outcome of my research determined if and how I needed to change my behaviour to fully realize the opportunities that generational differences can potentially foster. This research enabled me to provide an answer to my main question: how could I, as a leader, achieve excellence in successfully embracing all generations?