If you enjoyed the recently released movie, “The Intern,” starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway, you may not have thought about it more deeply than its surface. But the movie can be instructive as well as amusing because it deals with an important business and life tool long touted by thought leaders, collaboration. “The Intern” portrays a form of that device too few employers use to their great advantage. Collaboration across today’s widest generation gap, retired Baby Boomers and Millennials, can yield powerful results. The film demonstrates how the fresh ideas, energy, and social-media savvy of the new guard can meld so winningly with the calm, life-experienced, and old-fashioned etiquette of seasoned, retired, business professionals.
There’s nothing like the optimism, enthusiasm, and zeal of youth to turn an industry on its head or blaze a new trail. But youthful visionaries can benefit from balancing their perspectives with ones whose owners have been in the trenches, climbed the corporate ladder, been knocked down a rung or two, and survived to climb again. There is simply no substitute for life experience, and the cellular-deep knowledge it brings that mistakes aren’t the end of one’s career, even those that result in termination of employment or the loss of a business.
One of my favorite bits in the movie is seeing Robert De Niro’s professional wardrobe choice transform him from a look of aimless emptiness to purposeful excitement. It exemplifies the old adage, “people hear what they see.” This is another way of saying dressing the part is half of the battle. We expect others to act the part they dress for. It didn’t take long after De Niro joined the staff before Millennial interns followed his lead and upped their dressing games in styles more suited to their generation.
Some years ago I knew a man who had accomplished many things in a professional career. In retirement he took a part time job as a courier for a large, international company. He did it simply to have a reason to get up each morning because, like De Niro’s character, he was a recent widower. He often chatted with the recipients of the deliveries along his route, and when his customers told him about problems they faced, he’d offer solutions that had worked for him. More often than not his suggestions were ignored, because after all, what would a courier know about budgets? A lot, in this case. But the professionals couldn’t see beyond his role as a courier, no matter how often he reminded them of his credentials.
Those who retire before they are ready can be the deal of the century for savvy young companies when they are deployed properly. There are many reasons for this. They have nothing to fear. They can tell it like it is because they have nothing to lose. They’ve climbed the corporate ladder and made their marks. Now, they seek advisory roles and a place to contribute. So these “past-timer” Boomers will anchor your workforce and provide stability as younger, hungrier Millennials seek upward mobility within or outside of your organization. Along with stability they bring old-fashioned and out-of-date values like company loyalty, decorum, customer service orientation, and single-task focus and completion.
Pairing the old and new guards creates an important symmetry in organizations as it rounds out their populations and helps to avoid groupthink. If your company hasn’t yet tapped into the local pool of retired professionals or stay at home moms returning to the workforce it may be missing out on valuable, affordable assets. When you design your senior intern program take heed of all types of seniors, and combine them to your advantage.