Bridging the generation gap

Inspiring leadership

This year’s NSWNA Professional Day in Sydney on 8 August aims to identify and foster leadership qualities while breaking down the ‘generation gap’ that inhibits communication and cooperation in the profession.

The Lamp spoke with keynote speakers Avril Henry and Peter Sheahan, who are both renowned for their groundbreaking research and programs on leadership and cross-generational thinking in business and the workplace.

Avril Henry has worked extensively in many sectors, including health, and believes the solutions to today’s leadership and generational issues lie primarily in a better understanding of Generation Y.

‘Gen Y is different,’ said Avril. ‘They look at us and see a bunch of workaholic baby-boomers who have devoured the world’s resources at the cost of friendships and significant relationships – and they don’t want that. They call us the stress generation and they make a good point.

‘Gen Y’ers think and behave differently. Their beliefs and values are different to older generations. They are the workforce of the future and understanding what motivates them is important to the long-term sustainability of all organisations.

‘Like their title suggests, their favourite word is “why” and that is often misinterpreted in the workplace as being disruptive, when really, they just want to understand.’

Peter Sheahan, also an expert in workforce trends and generational change, agrees. ‘Gen Y’ers want to be inspired. They need to feel like their work matters or they will walk. They need to see respect, recognition and reward in the workplace and they want some control over their work and career.

‘Studies into the cultures of health care suggest that control is very centralised and managers could be a lot more collaborative.

‘While we can’t change the system or the culture overnight, what we can offer on Professional Day are tactical things that we can do now,’ said Peter.

According to Avril, Gen Y is driven by a strong ethical outlook and won’t swallow pre-packaged truths like previous generations.

‘They aren’t being disrespectful when they question us; in fact it’s all about respect for them. Peter summed it up beautifully when he said recently, “now and in the future power is out and respect is in”. I say bring it on, it’s long over due,’ said Avril.

Both Avril and Peter see the understanding of Gen Y as the key to breaking down generational workplace barriers and developing a healthy leadership culture. As a ‘card-carrying’ member of Gen Y, Peter speaks from experience whereas Avril has gathered much of her ‘inside’ knowledge from her four daughters and their friends.

‘We’ve had a deal for years, said Avril. ‘Every Sunday night they’d come over and I’d feed them good food and fine wine and, in exchange, they would tell me anything I wanted to know. That was the deal, all or nothing!’

Apart from imbuing them with an appreciation of non-cask wine in their early 20s, it has brought mother and daughters closer together as two now work full-time for her consultancy firm, Avril Henry Pty Ltd.

Avril graduated from the University of Cape Town in accounting and economics before migrating to Australia in 1980 with two suitcases and $500. She has since been a director of HR at some of Australia’s largest companies where she has played a key role in leadership development, people management strategies, cultural change and integration. She is the former chair and co-founder of the National Diversity Think Tank and a past president of the Sydney Business & Professional Women’s Club.

As a consultant she has assisted numerous government departments (defence, police, health) and private organisations (Toyota, CBA, IBM, Westpac to name a few). She is currently a strategic advisor to the Chief of Navy and is the only female and civilian member of the Australian Navy’s Workforce Planning Committee.

Avril has written three books including, The Who What When and Y of Generation Why? and, Inspiring Tomorrow’s Leaders Today: Breaking Down Generational Barriers At Work.

Avril last worked with Peter on the ‘The Henry Report’ – a ministerial review conducted by Avril into the recruitment and retention of staff in the army, air force and navy.

Peter is a passionate Gen Y’er who graduated in the top 1% of his school before starting his career in a large accounting firm. Totally uninspired, he left after eight days to clean toilets in a pub. Eighteen months later he was general manager of a multi-million dollar Sydney Hotel employing over 30 staff.

Today Peter has established a globally recognised brand as a leading expert in workforce trends and generational change. In just three years he has built a multi-million dollar consulting practice attracting clients such as News Limited, Google, Coca-Cola, L’Oreal and Harley Davidson. In 2003 he was named NSW Young Entrepreneur of the Year and in 2006 he was voted Keynote Speaker of the Year by the National Speakers Association (or to put it another way, he is the good-looking, young-gun of the motivational speaker circuit).

Peter has delivered more than 2,000 presentations to a combined audience of over 300,000 people in six different countries and is the author of four books, including the bestseller Generation Y: Thriving (and Surviving) with Generation Y at Work.

Together these two speakers promise a dynamic approach to Professional Day.

‘The key lies in training and developing better quality managers. The challenge here is that nurses have so much operational responsibility they will always be hard pressed to lead their teams effectively. However the systematic limitations to building better healthcare cultures are not going away, ever. So we must be proactive and build more empowering, respectful and, dare I say it, pleasant cultures for people to work in. This would not only attract and retain more Gen Y nurses but also attract nurses who have left and would consider re-entering the profession,’ said Peter.

‘The good news (and the bad news) is that cultures are not really made up of systems. They are made up of people. If your work environment is “toxic” (to quote a study into NSW Health) then this is the fault of the people, not the system itself. At some point we have to take responsibility, and hopefully my session will inspire nurses to do just that.

Avril sees Professional Day as an opportunity to bridge all the generation gaps.

‘Come along and learn about your own generation and what motivates other generations – I think you’ll be surprised. You’ll learn how to understand and build better working relationships with them,’ she said.

‘We need to understand what attracts Gen Y to the nursing profession – and guess what, it’s not about the money. We need to find out what sort of leadership Gen Y is looking for, and, you guessed it, it’s not what they’re getting now!

‘Contrary to many myths circulating in the media today, Gen Y is an inclusive, collaborative generation to which respect is crucial.

Learning about these differences means we can accept them and work with them. This session will give nurses of all ages skills that will not only enable them to be far more effective in the workplace, but also in their personal lives,’ said Avril.