Working Across Generations to Encourage Innovation

As the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association set out to tailor its offerings to a growing population of younger members, it realized it also needed to look inward at how its staff functioned across generations and how they could work better together.

The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association wanted to appeal to broader segments of its membership, including young professionals, so it began to ask what their needs are and what processes they had to change internally to match that.

“We’re having to kind of flip our processes on their head,” said Alexis Redmond, director of career management resources. ASHA also made other adjustments that allowed for new products to be developed based on these member needs.

For example, the association launched the new ASHA Career Portal, tailored to early-career professionals, to make sure they could find the resources they needed.  “In associations, we have so much access to resources, but how do we serve members in a way that will be palatable, particularly for a young cohort?” said Gwen Fortune-Blakely, ASHA’s enterprise-wide marketing director.

To start, ASHA delved into what members needed and were interested in—regarding resources, content, and technology—as well as the staff’s understanding of these things. “We had to have these very vulnerable and transparent conversations about: What do we want to offer? What will make us cutting-edge and compelling? How do we need to get our staff up to speed to be able to cater to this population?” Redmond said.

In some cases, this has taken the form of younger staff helping familiarize older staff with certain technologies. For example, ASHA’s social media manager offered a session on how to create an Instagram story. “There’s a lot of effort to keep people up to speed on using technology to make their teams more efficient,” Fortune-Blakely said.

But it’s not just younger staff teaching older ones about technology: It’s also collaborating in informal environments, such as showing a coworker how to do something or asking someone to help you—and recognizing that some people have more of an aptitude for technology than others do, regardless of age.

“It’s about taking advantage of what everybody brings to the table,” Fortune-Blakely said. So ASHA’s leaders asked themselves, “Who is showing aptitude and capability that we want to invite to the table to be a part of this discussion—without defaulting to seniority?”

Because of this shift in culture, ASHA restructured several positions, which meant that younger directors found themselves alongside a group of older ones, and they had to figure out how to work toward innovation together. “We had to look at how strategy was formulated and how communications were occurring in the group,” Redmond said. “How do we get to the same playing field and understand each other?”

Also, respect for cognitive diversity is important. “It’s not good enough to pitch it out and say, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ and assume everybody’s going to step up to talk,” Fortune-Blakely said. For people who are more reticent or introverted—especially if they’re younger, and the older people are used to dominating the conversation—it’s the manager’s job to use techniques to draw out people’s input in a way that allows them to express themselves comfortably. For example, you can stop the conversation and go around the room asking for everyone’s thoughts, she said.

A lot of it comes down to mutual respect, Fortune-Blakely said. And ASHA staff have expressed interest in professional development on generational diversity, including “what they bring to the table based on their history, how they think about things, and how we come together and innovate together without making assumptions.”

In working together to address member needs, if you give everyone “space to work on it, respect their thoughts, and let them lead the way, people will come up with great things,” Redmond said.

(momcilog/E+/Getty Images Plus)

Allison Torres Burtka

By Allison Torres Burtka

Allison Torres Burtka, a longtime association journalist, is a freelance writer and editor in West Bloomfield, Michigan. MORE

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