Dr. Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in the segregated South. In 1923, Thurman graduated from Morehouse College as valedictorian. He was ordained a Baptist minister in 1925, after completing his study at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He then pursued further study as a special student of philosophy at Haverford College with Rufus Jones, a noted Quaker philosopher and mystic. Thurman later earned his doctorate at Haverford.

Dr. Thurman was then invited to Boston University, where he became the first Black Dean of Marsh Chapel (1953–1965). He was the first man person to be named tenured Dean of Chapel at a majority-white university. Thurman was also active and well-known in the Boston community, where he influenced many leaders.

While at Boston University Thurman would tell the story of a man on a journey who came to a town where no one wore shoes. It was winter time and all of the residents had blue and frozen feet, in some cases even bleeding from the snow and ice. The visitor asked the manager of the hotel where he was staying what the bizarre practice meant. “What practice?” the manager responded. The visitor pointed to the man’s bare feet. “Why isn’t anyone in this town wearing shoes? Don’t you believe in shoes?”

“Believe in shoes, my friend! I should say we do,” the manager replied. “A belief in shoes is the first article of our creed. They are indispensible to the well being of humanity. They prevent cuts, sores, and suffering.”

“Well, why don’t you wear them?” asked the traveler. “Ah,” responded the manager, “that’s just it. Why don’t we?”

Later, walking through the town the visitor inquired about a huge building he saw. “That is one of outstanding shoe manufacturing establishments,” he was told. “You mean you make shoes there?” asked the newcomer in amazement. “Well not exactly,” was the answer. “We talk about making shoes there and we have hired a brilliant young fellow to speak on the subject every week. Just yesterday his speech was so compelling that his hearers broke down and wept. It was powerful!” “But why don’t you wear shoes?” the visitor asked. “That’s just it … why don’t we?”

The story ends when the traveler discovers a cobbler making shoes in a little basement shop. He rushes in and buys three pairs as a gift for his new friend. The friend was embarrassed. “Ah, thank you,” he said politely. “But you don’t understand. It just isn’t done. We don’t wear them.”

Thurman’s story suggests, all too often the way things happen in our industry. There are ways of life everyone believes in but no one practices.

I’m confounded by the things that are said verses the actions that are actually taken. I see this often when working with family businesses on a regular basis and talking about the importance of planning the transition from one generation to another. Not everything is the same when it comes to generational communication or training. However, we often apply a one size fits all approach to training and development. In addition, training and development is most often looked at from a single direction, meaning the elder generation believes they have little to learn and that the junior generation must understand how things have always been before they can begin offering suggestions. This is a big mistake in today’s fast paced tech driven retail environment. At the same time the junior generation often fails to realize and take advantage of the wisdom, patience, and relationships that have been built during a lifetime of minding the family business.

Today’s family business consists of a diverse mix of up to four generations dealing with the same business issues. While there are countless names and descriptions for each generation, I would like to use Greatest Generation, Baby Boomer, Gen – X, and Gen – Y as examples here. I want you to consider from the perspective of training how generational differences result in poor outcomes if they are not taken into account.

Training can be designed to avoid miscommunication. But time-and-time again I come face-to-face with family situations that make me scratch my head and think, “That’s just it … why don’t we?”

Here are seven serious differences between the generations. Consider these factors to avoid a communication breakdown and ensure that important training and transition takes hold.

  1. Scheduling and timing of training or workshops should account for the differences of generations. The Greatest Generation will arrive early and be ready to “go to work.” Gen – X’ers have the expectation that training will start and end on time. No exceptions. Baby Boomers will be on the lookout for social time during the session, and Gen – Y will be looking for things to start on time, but they might be late and will be looking for ways to get things done early.
  2. During training, it is perfectly acceptable to use a lecture style when dealing with the Greatest Generation, while the most effective way to reach Baby Boomers is the use of team activities or teaching methods. The two younger generations prefer activity based training for Gen – X, and the complete use of technology for Gen – Y.
  3. Acknowledgment of the participants from the trainer is import to both Boomers and the younger Gen – Y’s in the crowd. Interestingly, Boomers are more interested in hearing from the rest of the crowd how smart their input is, while Gen – X could truly care less if they receive any feedback at all.
  4. Case studies are effective for each generation, but the way conclusions are drawn are entirely different. Gen – Y, for example, will want casual discussion to further talk through the studies outcome. Gen – X will simply find a “one solution” case unacceptable while Baby Boomers will want a more experienced version of the study; they are merely looking for ways everyone might role play each role within the study. And finally the Greatest Generation are simply making sure their opinions and wisdom are included in any finding that comes from a study.
  5. Each generation is looking for training to align with their goals differently. The Boomers want training to align with the company’s strategic goals, the Greatest Generation is looking at training as it relates to bottom line success, while X’ers are looking for alignment to mission. Finally Gen – Y is focused on matching values and positive image.
  6. In terms of applicable outcomes from training, each generation is again looking for something different. Boomers want deliverables that ensure survival. Greatest Generation attendees are looking to add to their skill set mostly for fun. At the same time Gen – X and Y’ers are looking for skills that are transferable to other companies. Unless the younger generations are family members, they realize they will likely be working somewhere else in a matter of years.
  7. As a trainer in a multi generational environment, you should expect very different feedback from each group. The Greatest Generation will be respectful of the evaluation process and will provide detailed comments when asked. Boomers will be looking for additional time in order to provide a true assessment of what they learned. Gen –X’ers will provide feedback to the trainers and the rest of the participants throughout the session. Their feedback will be direct, but not patronizing. Gen – Y’s will do the something, but they will expect praise for taking the time to providing it.

It’s important to realize that you have a very short amount of time to capture people’s attention when training or working in a multi-generational setting. Throughout the session it is important to take people back to the beginning and reconfirm the objectives. If the session is not going well, it is important to be candid and confirm you have not done a good job at drawing everyone in and setting a positive interactive tone. This is when you must ask for forgiveness and time to “re-group.” If the facilitator is sincere, this time will almost always be granted.

Remember one size does not fit all when it comes to clear communication. Use the skills of each age group to deepen understanding and build a company that places value in the diversity of generations. This is hard work in any setting, but especially difficult in a multi-generational environment.

The fruit of this effort is stronger family businesses and often stronger families. Just as the Jewish saying goes; L’Dor V’Dor!