Grey-haired execs and millennials collaborate to change the world

Audacious ambition, sector shifting initiatives, work imbued with meaning while responding to market forces – it’s not youthful folly. It’s the opportunity for experienced executives to leverage their platforms for enhanced personal and professional impact. With greater experience, influence and access, baby boomers can now drive the systemic change they could only dream about when bell bottoms were first in style and they were raging vs ‘the man’.

Gallup’s recent 142-country study on the State of the Global Workplace reveals that only 13% of employees worldwide are actively engaged at work, and more than twice that number are so disengaged they are likely to spread negativity to others. A 2014 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends study of 2,500 organizations in 90 countries termed the struggle to engage our 21st century workforce a worldwide problem. In 2012 McKinsey reported that millennial talent are rejecting organizations that are unable to connect profit and purpose. Add to the equation public demands for companies to assume a larger role in responding to social issues, and it is clear that corporate leaders have a mandate. Yet rather than step up, many business leaders are stepping down just when they have the most influence and are at the height of their abilities.

Over the last thirty years I have had the privilege of being the psychologist not only in the therapy room, but also in the board room, conference room and corporate office. And I have heard a similar question from 25 year olds and 55 year olds: what should I do with my life? With a career ahead of them the pressure is on new entrants to the workforce to “make it meaningful”. Facing the prospect of retirement, the boomers refrain is “am I doing anything worthwhile, what will be my legacy? “ In my experience, the two ends of the occupational work spectrum are best suited to drive change, and to do so from a place of passion and meaning.

Senior leaders no longer stimulated by the status quo contemplate leaving their posts to make a difference or give back through board memberships and nonprofit work. This is not surprising given the popular discourse that calls for realizing what Marc Freedman of terms one’s “experience dividend” by entering new systems, seeking next stage careers, often in public service. I encourage my clients to think hard about staying put.

With greater confidence and credibility, seasoned change agents can cascade their wisdom within their existing companies, challenging their enterprises to effect changes in their communities by doing business differently. Having reached the institutional summit, they now have the opportunity to integrate a personal sense of purpose with the goals of the profit-driven organizations they lead. By reconnecting to and expressing a point of view that matters both to themselves and to others, executives can personally reenergize their careers and inspire the workforce they lead.

image1The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013 reported that a third of Americans aged 65-69 are still in the workforce. Rather than fear the impending grey tsunami, we should instead capture its force and drive change from within the enterprises that are lucky enough to still benefit from these leaders. Why not consider teaming up millennials and boomers with the express purpose of bringing social impact to the core of the business? This includes and moves beyond intergenerational mentoring, which to date has often focused on either negotiating corporate politics or increasing the tech savvy of those born when phones had separate handsets connected with curly cords. At a time when there is great trepidation about managing across the age divide, dynamic duos of social change can create a language of shared intention. The mature leader concerned about income or gender inequality can have sweeping effect by altering their company’s recruitment policy, supply chain expectations, governance of their own and invested companies, creating products that respond to (rather than create) social need, and the list goes on. Driving social impact as a core corporate strategy requires gravitas that a senior professional has earned and responds to the younger generations expressed expectation of its employer.

Too often when diversity and shared value creation programs are articulated in a CEO’s vision, they are left to disempowered early career employees to execute with “programs.” The result is cosmetic surgery when compared to bold leadership in conference rooms and boardrooms where choices are challenged based on a more expansive definition of shared stakeholders. The millennial can help widen the boomer’s field of vision to the interconnections that twenty-somethings readily see given their means of sharing and consuming information.

Including millennials in forums to explore questions that don’t yet have answers respects their creativity while modeling the importance of leadership that is unafraid to ask. Millennials, coming of age in an era of social entrepreneurship and economic disruption, may stimulate older executives to identify an expanded social context for their organizations, shaping not only novel solutions but also contributing to public discourse around shared problems. With the ability to direct resources and navigate organizational terrain, the C-Suite veteran can use his or her platform to generate oxygen pockets of innovation, convening groups that might not otherwise converse — including voices across sectors, countries or levels of society. The millennials can further open an organization’s aperture by crowdsourcing additional diverse perspectives from within and outside of the company.

For the elder employee who is contemplating leaving a job in order to build something new or amplify impact, channeling start-up desires into entrepreneurial ventures can promote social transformation from within the boardroom. Partnering with and empowering shared stakeholders can be far more efficient and motivating than leaving, creating a new nonprofit and then lobbying companies for support. As millennials seek employment with companies that combine purpose and profit, recruitment of new talent may depend on retaining the aging as an inspiration-and source of energy for the future.

Biographical information

Dr. Melanie Katzman has led pioneering efforts at the intersection of individual, enterprise and system change for over three decades ( She has been a strategic advisor to business leaders, entrepreneurial ventures, government agencies and non-profits on six continents. Holding faculty appointments at Weill Cornell Medical Center and The Wharton Business School, she combines business acumen with data based insights on human behavior. Melanie is the co-creator of Women@Work on SiriusXM’s Business Radio. She provides advice to a national audience monthly during her featured segment Human@Work.