Finding Common Ground

As four generations converge in the workplace, companies must find ways to maximize employee relationships.

W hen local university students began calling Midwest Realty Group LLC in Portage, Mich., pretending to be prospective clients for a real estate class assignment, Rick R. DeKam, CCIM, a partner in the office, always could pick them out. Rather than field the students' phone calls, DeKam contacted the professor and offered to help with the course directly. The instructor asked him to speak to the class about commercial real estate as a career choice. The lectures went over so well that several of the students inquired about internships with Midwest Realty. Although the company hadn't sponsored an internship program before, DeKam knew that inviting young people into the office would be a great experience. "I've always had a soft spot in my heart to help others," he says. And he was excited to share his passion for real estate with those who were new to the industry.

Ten years after DeKam first visited the real estate class, the internship program is still in place. Having a younger generation represented in the office has been a rewarding experience for both the company and the interns. "I tell my employees that the internship is really for the students - to expose them to meetings and a number of different situations," he says. But office professionals benefit from the students' presence too. "These young people are passionate, full of energy and ideas. Their enthusiasm becomes contagious across the office," DeKam says.

Soozi Jones Walker, CCIM, SIOR, a broker with Commercial Executives in Las Vegas, also has seen the effects novice industry professionals can have on a company. A member of the baby boom generation, Jones Walker partnered with her daughter four-and-a-half years ago. Her generation X daughter's energy and technology knowledge impressed her. "Young brokers ... keep us 'old dogs' young. They make us think and make us laugh at ourselves," she says.

But Jones Walker did notice some generational differences. "I have observed that the younger generations expect higher pay in a shorter time period. Many of the newer agents are surprised at how hard the work is at times. The idea of long hours and pay in hard work and sweat was not taught in college," she says.

Unsurprisingly, Jones Walker and DeKam observe differences -- both positive and negative - in the way their younger co-workers think and behave. "Each generation sees the world differently. We all have different values and in some ways we are prisoners of our generation," says Don Blohowiak, founder and principal consultant of Princeton, N.J.-based Lead Well Institute, which consults and coaches organizations on leadership and management issues.

The multigenerational workplace is becoming increasingly common, both within commercial real estate and across the business world. "It's unusual, but we are approaching a time with four generations in the workplace," Blohowiak says. "It's bound to cause some generational tension and we all need to be careful not to make broad generalizations about different generations."

This starts with knowing how to work well with members of generations other than your own. In 2005, generation Y, also known as millennials or echo boomers, occupied 21 percent of the U.S. workforce, a jump from 14 percent four years prior. The other three generations currently occupying the workforce include generation X, baby boomers, and the silent generation. (See sidebar.)

As generation Y enters the workforce, improved health and pensions that grow larger the longer workers remain on the job are driving baby boomers to delay retirement. In addition, the age to receive Social Security benefits is rising to 67 for those born after 1960. By the year 2010, the average age of retirees may be well over 70 according to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington in Seattle. With more experienced generations staying in the business world longer and younger generations joining the workforce in record numbers, employers and managers need to find new ways to motivate employees and minimize conflict in a diverse workplace.

Different Perspectives

With each generation's varying work ethics, skill sets, and expectations, office managers and co-workers from different generations must possess a basic understanding of other generations. "Managers need to know who is who and not assume or imply. They need to create a place where people communicate, feel comfortable, and want to be there," Blohowiak says.

An important component of this is awareness of clients' and co-workers' preferred communication methods. "When working with my mentors who are now in their 60s and 70s, I don't overwhelm them with numbers and technology. They want [information] the old-fashioned way. I always book additional time to talk and always call them personally or meet face to face," Jones Walker says.

While silent generation members and some baby boomers may prefer in-person sit-down meetings, new recruits may not require this type of communication. Generations X and Y excel at technology skills and often prefer the speed and ease of electronic delivery. Generation Y members have used computers and the Internet since childhood and have mastered the skill of sorting through data by the time they enter the workplace, according to Lynne C. Lancaster and David Stillman, co-founders of BridgeWorks, a San Francisco- and Minneapolis-based company that consults on workplace generational issues.

Industry newcomers also present valuable opportunities for established companies to reel in new clients. "Older generations use contacts and databases that have been created over the years through networking, while the younger generation makes cold calls and new relationships," says Robin M. Kean, CCIM, owner of Kean Properties LLC in Kihei, Hawaii, a generation Y member.

And some generation X and Y clients may feel more comfortable dealing with one of their peers. "A younger agent might mesh better with corporations' younger team members," says Robin S. Eschliman, CCIM, associate broker with NAI FMA Realty in Lincoln, Neb., and a generation X member. But this also works both ways: "A younger agent may not receive as much respect as if there were an older agent teaming up with him," she adds.

Show and Tell

To create the ideal professional team, employees of different generations need to gain a better understanding of one another. Training, mentoring, and internship programs are ways to effectively accomplish this. Kean, who began his career under the wing of Toby Roth, an industry veteran in his former office, says this training arrangement taught him several valuable lessons. "I couldn't have learned more from Toby. The managing broker at my old firm thought it would be a perfect fit to team me up with [Toby] in a mentorship program to both teach me and motivate him," he says.

Today's students consider internships an important part of their career plans. Approximately 79 percent of students felt participating in an internship was essential to their future success, according to a survey of 2,653 students conducted earlier this year by WetFeet, a recruitment research and consulting organization in San Francisco.

Pairing up new brokers with industry veterans can be rewarding for both generations. While members of generations X and Y have the opportunity to learn about their companies and industry strategies, baby boomers and the silent generation can have their new technology questions answered. "The older generation has experience in every type of deal and the knowledge of getting things done, while the younger generation brings new things to the table and looks at things from a different perspective," says Kean, who recalls a particular instance in which his mentor steered him in the right direction. "I relied on the computer too much and missed properties for tenants such as for-sale and for-lease by owners," he says. "My [mentor] pointed out that many properties don't make it to the databases and driving the market is the best way to give tenants an overall market view."

In turn, the protege can give something back to the mentor. New recruits from generation Y don't have the constructs about the industry that veterans do, DeKam says. "You might disregard their comments but if you start to listen - it might not sound like the best idea at first - but it could end up being great," he says.

For example, DeKam once gave a difficult leasing assignment to a new broker. He moved the broker's desk into his personal office so that he could observe his cold-calling techniques and more effectively train and challenge him. DeKam offered the new broker monetary bonuses based on closed transactions. "This tied him to the results of his efforts and ideas," he says. This close supervision and incentive program, combined with the young broker's "endearing and outgoing" personality, created an ideal training situation that also benefited the office's bottom line. "In eight years we have never had anybody do such a good job with our leasing portfolio. He has far surpassed anyone else in the same position and because of this, we're promoting him to our property development division," DeKam says.

Defining Priorities

Pairing a novice with an industry veteran may create a productive work relationship, but generational tension is a likely side effect. More than 60 percent of employers claim that tension exists between multigenerational co-workers according to a study by Lee Hecht Harrison, a global human capital consulting and research company. The commercial real estate industry is no different.

"[Younger generations] do not want to discuss business after hours and they do not want to work late and on weekends," says Skip G.T. Duemeland, CCIM, chief executive officer of Duemelands Commercial LLLP in Bismarck, N.D. In fact, research shows that work-life balance and job flexibility are priorities for younger generations.

After completing a transaction with a group of several generation X colleagues, baby boomer Paul Jackson, CCIM, vice president of Chambers Commercial Real Estate Group in Hamilton, Ontario, observed this firsthand. "In terms of employment, wages and holiday time and employers' provisions for on-site day care are equally important to them," he says.

While it may appear to the more mature generations that the younger generations aren't working to their potential, generations X and Y have grown up very aware of the toll overworked parents can take on a family, according to Career Planning and Management, a Boston-based career development coaching and consulting company. This means that new hires may be interested in options such as flexible work schedules and telecommuting - choices that employers need to think about offering in the future, experts say. But a preference for alternative work schedules doesn't mean that generations X and Y lack ambition. In fact, many CCIMs note their younger counterparts display a competitive edge and the ability to learn quickly. "The younger brokers are hungrier and more aggressive. They like to be perceived as innovative and fearless," Eschliman says.

When Kean began his career in Denver as a newcomer he knew he needed something to set himself apart to win clients. He noticed that most of his colleagues dressed casually. To stand out from the crowd, he and a co-worker decided to be "better dressed than all of them - suit and tie everyday," he says. Clients and colleagues noticed the effort. "We got compliments on our professionalism," Kean says.

Despite the numerous and notable differences between each of the four generations currently occupying the workforce, Blohowiak suggests avoiding generational stereotypes. "Clearly there are exceptions to every rule," he says. And in the end, "we all want the same thing: to be treated fairly, to be informed, and to receive fair rewards."

After all, a hard worker is a hard worker. "If I can find someone who is proactive and committed, I don't care what age they are," DeKam says.

Carolyn Bilsky

Area report is written by Carolyn Bilsky, associate editor of Commercial Investment Real Estate. Contact her at (312) 321-4507 or


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