Bridging the Generational Communication Barrier

  • First Bank
  • 06/27/2022

In order for a business to be successful, an organization’s leadership often concentrates on the more common business side of the business, including the balance sheet, quarterly sales, and marketing strategies, as well as building a customer-centric culture. A competitive advantage that many successful family-owned business leaders may overlook, however, is developing an effective communications strategy. This can be especially true of those family business leaders representing different generations.

A study conducted by Robert Half Management Resources, found that 30% of the executives surveyed had indicated that communication skills represent the greatest difference among employees from different generations.

Within a family business, generational communication styles can take on a different meaning. Outside of the family business, many family members communicate in one manner based on their roles within the family structure; however, when those communication styles come together in the workplace, the dynamics can sometimes become challenging. It’s easy to understand the complexity when considering the unique family dynamics that involve siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and children.

In today’s family business setting, it’s not uncommon for multiple generations to be working in the business, involved informally outside of the business, or serve as an active member of the board of directors all at the same time. Given these multi-generational layers within the business, it’s critical for family business members to develop strategies to communicate effectively and find manners in which to mesh their differing management styles for the overall good of the business.

Pictured Above: Katie Rucker, President of Operations, and Jenny Dinnen, President of Sales and Operations, and second-generation family business leaders of MacKenzie Corporation. 

Bridging generational differences

A second-generation family business, MacKenzie Corporation was founded in 1985 in the Orange County home of Don Vivrette, founder and father of Katie Rucker, President of Operations, and Jenny Dinnen, President of Sales and Operations. Vivrette welcomed his daughters, Katie and Jenny, to the company’s leadership team in 2008, while creating a multi-generational workplace within the organization.

“I would encourage multi-generational family business leaders to take the time to understand each family member’s communication style. If you can, find time before debatable, or even heated, discussions take place, and create an opportunity to share ways in which you want or prefer to be communicated with,” explained Rucker. “Also, determine how you and the family member can ebb and flow between communication styles.” She explained that it’s important for family members to establish communication methods for different scenarios in the beginning before any major discussions occur.

Watch a webinar presented by the First Bank Center for Family-Owned Businesses on effective methods and best practices to help manage and resolve conflict within a family-owned business.

When communicating with a multi-generational family member, assume you are both striving for the most positive outcome. “Consider what else might be true,” said Dinnen. “Just because something is coming across one way, like in an abrupt text or email, it may mean there’s simply something else behind their communication style. Before responding, assume positive intent.”

Rucker suggested for family members to acknowledge that they may communicate in one manner outside of the office, but while at work, to determine how they will communicate with one another.  Rucker recalled that in the early years of she and her sister being involved, they would meet monthly to review finances with their father. The finance meeting was definitely held with more of their father’s reserved communication style; however, over time, they’d start asking questions and initiate open discussions about how he approached the finances. “We didn’t change how we handled the financials until he had fully transitioned out of the business as this was an area that he felt strongly about.”  

During the transition, Dinnen and Rucker would provide their father with a quick highlight email each week to help keep him in the loop. This helped to ensure there was timely, concise communications.  Rucker said, “While the emails were good, it generally led to questions which then developed into face-to-face meetings.  Over time, as we continued to have wins with our new style of leadership, then our dad felt more comfortable to pull back.” 

Generational styles
The Robert Half study also indicated that the working style of the baby boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964), is often more reserved and they tend to prefer in-office, face-to-face communication. Much like Dinnen and Rucker, the study found that the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1996), embraces technology-centric work offerings and a more collaborative approach in the workplace.  

Each generation has its own manner of both working and communicating. “In today’s work environment, we strive to be more collaborative,” said Rucker, “because that’s how we believe innovation happens.” Rucker recalls the days when she and Dinnen had first assumed leadership roles within the family business and discovered that it was then uncommon within their organization to hold team collaboration meetings.

Rucker said they started with monthly staff meetings. “We then started incorporating various workshops around strengths, values, and motivators,” she added. “Some team members embraced it and others did not, however, once the team started to see how this new style could help improve communication, they were more open to participating.”

She added that they started mixing their meetings up with various themes, different team members leading the meetings, asking different questions at the beginning to get people to open up, and creating interactive activities to get team members to solve problems together in creative ways. “Although our collaborative approach has been a journey, I’d definitely say that it has been successful.”

“The legacy generation often has a different manner in which they operate the business,” she said. “At one time, it was commonplace to be task-oriented, operate within the silo of your individual role, and communicate with colleagues in a one-on-one manner versus from within a collaborative, team environment.”

In an effort to take the family business to a new level, Rucker and Dinnen agreed that their style would create a culture where failure is an option. “In my opinion,” said Rucker, “the baby boomer generation wasn’t necessarily encouraged to share openly or to fail in business. Today, however, we feel that if our team brainstorms an idea, we try it, and see that it wasn’t successful, then that just means we can learn from it and grow together.”

Read more about “Bridging Generational Differences Within a Family Business”.

“We very much believe in open communication, team cohesion,” Dinnen added, “and going in on projects together. We believe that collectively, we will rise together.”