What Boomers can Learn from Millennials with Karl Moore

PodcastSeptember 13th, 2021

“When I was young, there was a lot of truth in the capital T. I still believe there is some. . . But there’s less truth than there used to be. There’s more uncertainty about the world, therefore we need to be more flexible and recognize there’s multiple sources of truth and there’s less truth with a capital T, and truth changes.”

Subscribe to get notified when a new podcast episode is out

Intro

In this episode of The Decision Corner, Brooke is joined by Karl Moore, Oxford University Associate Fellow and McGill University Professor, and author of the upcoming book, OK Boomer: Working With Millennials and Generation Z. With 12 years of sales and marketing management experience, Karl has been named one of the top four business professors in Canada, and one of the world’s greatest business thinkers by Business Strategy Review. He has also interviewed hundreds of leaders for his research on extroverted, ambiverted, and introverted leadership styles, including leaders like Justin Trudeau, Muhammad Yunus, and Sir Richard Branson.

This conversation applies Karl’s management knowledge to intergenerational workforces, including topics such as:

  • The modern and postmodern worldview that differentiates Boomers and Millennials
  • The impact of worldview on work style, including our perception of truth
  • Why Boomers should make room for empathy in their workplaces
  • Why some life lessons become less relevant as we age
  • The six lessons for senior executives from OK Boomer
  • Casual workplace connection in the age of WFH

Key Quotes

The impact of generational experience on worldview

“If you graduated in the recession and you’ve got to really struggle, you have a more negative view of the world and the economy and these things stay with you. Some of the big issues we think about are truth. Who has truth? What is truth? The importance of analysis and reason versus emotions. So these are some of the big things that come out in postmodern versus modern sites that impact how we view the world, how we want to be managed and how we lead.”

On rapid technological and business innovation

“Back in the late 70s in IBM, I was in Plans and Controls, which sounds like the evil part of Star Wars. But what we did was we assumed that we’d be 5% bigger than the year before, and that was a safe assumption. Now, today’s world is much more turbulent. We pivot, we’ve got to change. We have the Uberization of every industry. So CEOs come to class and they say, who’s the Uber of your industry, Brooke? Embarrassingly, I said that to the head of Uber, Canada, and everybody laughed because he goes, “Well, we’re Uber.”

On Simone Biles’ postmodern drop out of the Olympics

“Boomers mock [millennials] and say, suck it up. We’ve had to do this, you do that. But then the world said, wait a minute, these young women are onto something, that mental health, and the case of the gymnast, she kind of lost at a certain point. And if you lose it, you could really hurt yourself. Like there was a physical reason not to do this if your mind is not fully there. So there’s a change there in terms of how we view the world and our priorities. I would argue that what the boomers make fun of, a couple years later, they will want the same things.”

On the postmodern need for constant feedback

“Part of what generation Z are looking for from their managers is feedback. And so they want feedback a lot more than the past. And I see this among my students. To a certain point I say to them, Brooke, “I’ve run out of feedback. I’m now making it up. I’m just grasping it out of the year. Ignore it.”

On the increasingly accepted value of emotions

“We teach young people that emotions and thought are similar, partly because: What is thought? What is truth? Spreadsheets lie. These are some things that we understand that people question increasingly, but what emotions are, are much more valued than in the past.”

On the importance of social justice in the workplace

“Young people are looking for purpose. When you look at climate change, when you look at what’s happening in places like Afghanistan, you look at racial inequities, you go, we have some big problems that our organization should make some contribution towards, not merely paying our senior executives a lot of money. That’s an important thing too, to get that purpose of the organization front and center. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to hire as many generation Z and millennials as you thought you could.”

Transcript

Brooke Struck: Hello everyone, and welcome to the podcast of The Decision Lab, a socially-conscious applied research firm that uses behavioral science to improve outcomes for all of society. My name is Brooke Struck, Research Director at TDL, and I’ll be your host for the discussion.

Brooke Struck: My guest today is Karl Moore, professor at McGill University in Management and Neurology, keynote speaker and author of the forthcoming book, OK Boomer: Working With Millennials and Generation Z. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about the postmodern workplace where many perspectives and many truths collide. Carl, thanks for joining us.

Karl Moore: My pleasure, Brooke.

Brooke Struck: Before we launch, so to speak, please tell us a bit about yourself and what you’re up to these days.

Karl Moore: Well, I grew up in Toronto, went to school in LA and Boston at USC and Harvard, and then came back and worked for IBM for 11 years in Toronto, Virginia and Hamilton in sales management, global product management. Decided to do my PhD for some obscure reason and then went over and taught at Oxford for five years. So when our son was four, he came home, he said, “Daddy, I need a boss.” And my wife and I, who’s from Quebec City, decided that it was time to leave.

I came about 20 years ago to work with Henry Mintzberg at McGill, one of the great management thinkers of the world, and have written three books on globalization in the ancient medieval world when I was at Oxford and early McGill and have moved on to something perhaps slightly more relevant. I’ve got a book on introverts, ambiverts and extroverts, and then the book which is with a publisher now that we’re talking about today, is about moderns and post-moderns and how to work with millennials and generation Z.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. So I’m really curious about this distinction you draw between moderns and post-moderns. So how do these terms map onto the generational labels that most listeners will probably be more familiar with, boomers, gen X, millennials, gen Z, and so forth.

Karl Moore: Well, the post-modern worldview was largely taught to people with university degrees over 45. The postmodern worldview has been taught to people under 35 with university degrees. Now, the idea is that if you have a high school education or junior college, the ideas would impact you, but not as much as if you go to university where you wrestle with these topics for a number of years. And you may have noticed Brooke, since you’re probably between 35 and 45, that I missed you. And I assume you’re over 35. So it’s something where… Is that a fair assumption?

Brooke Struck: It is not, but thank you very much for assuming I have wisdom beyond my years.

Karl Moore: Way to go! So something where over 45, I’m convinced that you were taught a modern worldview because of the education at the time, or under 35, I’m pretty sure as well, but between 35 and 45, it depends on what subject you were taught at what university and what country. But the idea is that modern thought was started in France and we do, and should make fun of French intellectuals, but they did have a huge impact on the world of post-modern thought. And it spread from there to the US, to Harvard and Duke’s English departments and kind of spread out from that. But that was decades ago where I talked to faculty and deans at every faculty at McGill, from dentistry to law, to medicine, and it’s all post-modern, and it has been for decades.

Now, this is important because of the idea of worldview. So we develop worldviews typically between age 17, 18 and 25, more or less, which is the age when you’re in university, particularly. Now that’s the idea of a cohort that goes back to ancient Rome. But what we see today is that events define us.

My father, during the Depression, left the farm at age 16 and rode the rails – as it was called back then. So as the train left Rosetown, Saskatchewan and gathered steam, literally steam as a steam engine, young men would run along to jump aside and get on top illegally. And there were men called bulls who would trace them down and you’d go to jail, quite a different career path. My dad evidently ran fast, got to Toronto, and was 40 years with the same organization because it meant security, which if you grew up in the depression, that was incredibly important.

When I left IBM, which stood for a job for life back then, after a dozen years and moved to Hitachi because they doubled my salary, he said, “That’s not reason enough. You don’t want to give up job security just for mere money.” But I was a boomer. It was boom times and life was good. Different set of priorities based on the experiences he had. As I suppose, when we talk to students, and I taught him to Guilford for 20 years, Oxford for five, if you graduated as I did in boom times, you have a very positive view of the economy because I had multiple job offers. Everybody did.

But if you graduated in the recession and you’ve got to really struggle, you have a more negative view of the world and the economy and these things stay with you. So one is that you have certain life experiences. The second thing is you’re taught a worldview in your education. And some of the big issues we think about are truth. Who has truth? What is truth? Hierarchy, who’s in charge? How much authority do they have? The importance of analysis and reason versus emotions. So these are some of the big things that come out in postmodern versus modern sites that impact how we view the world, how we want to be managed and how we lead as well.

Brooke Struck: You mentioned the French intellectuals earlier on, that we sometimes tease. But there’s quite a bit to unpack there. I mean, this idea after, I guess after the first world war, this kind of collapse of some enlightenment ideals of truth and this conflict between really two schools of thought, one believing that power flows from truth, that if you know the right thing, that’s what gives you legitimacy to direct others, versus the other way around, truth flowing from power, right? That truth is actually just a covert word for politics.

Those are two really, really different ways of viewing the world. And so I gather what you’re talking about in this transition around the notion of truth from modern to post-modern is that transition from the idea that there’s one center of truth, and from that flows one center of power, to this inversion where there are many different centers of power and from those centers of power flow different sources of truth.

Karl Moore: No, absolutely. It’s something where the modern worldview was a rejection of what came before it. And partly is saying we were the epitome of human evolution. So everything before us was lesser and they rejected… You had modern art, which rejected the great Dutch impressionist. You had modern architecture which said the Greeks and the Romans go away. What did they know? And you have that in history and so on. So virtually every discipline. And they rejected some wonderful things and some things they should have rejected, for sure. So was it an arrogant view of the world that said we are the pinnacle?

And I remember my grandparents lived in houses that had no plumbing, had no toilets and they were here, my brother and I did better, and we assumed the world would get better – because of science, because of how clever human beings were, the world would go on this incredibly improving road. Where today, my students assume they will not do as well as their parents because of climate change, because of racial inequality, because of events in the world. And they’re probably right.

So their view would be to own a house on the south shore, a four bedroom house with a swimming pool and two cars and commute to Montreal, is wrong. Where boomers saw it as kind of, there’s a famous bumper sticker, Brooke, he who dies with the most toys wins. And when I show that to my students, they’re horrified by just the sheer shallowness of the boomers. But I remember that we measured ourselves by the kind of car we drove, the kind of clothes we had, our address, where we got to travel, were you in the business class or not?

And there was a sense of defining ourselves by how much money we made. And as long as it was legal, very broad guidelines, you could do whatever you wanted. And if you have the money, just go ahead and buy a lot of plastic bottles. The world system was all right.

We recognize now that that was extremely foolish thinking, but at the time it made sense. There’s a set of things which have really fundamentally changed. Why? Because the modern worldview failed, fell short and proved inadequate, hence post modern, that is after modern thought, which says some of those assumptions we’ve changed.

Brooke Struck: And you mentioned science, innovation, and this idea of perpetual progress, which seems to be faltering at this point. But if we look at the structure of the economy right now, and the importance of innovation and the pace of change, is the postmodern worldview not also better adapted to a world that is changing quickly, where in fact you need to be responding to let’s say, weak signals that your organization sees from lots of different corners. It’s just too hard to keep track of everything that’s changing in an ecosystem from one centralized place. So you need to have eyes and ears all over.

Karl Moore: Well, so there’s two big schools of strategy. Henry Mintzberg called the merchant strategy, then Michael Porter at Harvard called deliberate strategy. And we like Michael, we gave him an honorary doctorate four or five years ago, I spent an hour interviewing him and I was like, ‘Whoa!’. He taught me back at Harvard a gazillion years ago, when we were both young, and his approach was the old school of deliberate, the CEO creates a strategy with McKinsey, Bain, or BCG consultants, and they, with the senior team present it to the rest of us schmucks and we salute and go, that’s it, we’re going to do it.

Now in a world that doesn’t change, that might make sense. Back in the late 70s in IBM, I was in Plans and Controls, which sounds like the evil part of Star Wars. But what we did was we assumed that we’d be 5% bigger than the year before, and that was a safe assumption. Now, today’s world is much more turbulent. We pivot, we’ve got to change. We have the Uberization of every industry. So CEOs come to class and they say, who’s the Uber of your industry, Brooke? Embarrassingly, I said that to the head of Uber, Canada, and everybody laughed because he goes, “Well, we’re Uber.” I said, “That’s a great point, actually.” But it’s something where we have an enormous amount of change.

So in deliberate strategy, how you make strategy is boundary spanners are really central. That is young people, Zs and millennials who have one foot in the real world turbulent and one foot in the organization. They’re salespeople, they’re customer service, they’re engineers. They’re out there. They give us feedback, which then what senior management should do is encourage innovation, 1,000 flowers to bloom, so that everybody does innovative stuff, but read my lips, no new budget. So do it frugally. Jugaad is a word we ran into in India, frugal innovation.

The job of senior management is not to have the ideas, which is a relief to them, but they spot good ones that come throughout the organization, choose which ones to scale up, spread across the organization, and we have new strategies. So that’s the more important approach today if you live in a turbine world. Now, there are exceptions. So the head of Air France, Ben Smith, I interviewed him. He was a president of Air Canada, passed few airlines and went over to run Air France. When he goes and decides which is the new fleet they’re going to have, he gets some real experts and it’s billions of dollars, he goes to the board and it’s his decision with expert advice. He’s not asking flight attendants or pilots.

It comes from the top there. This is the nature of the decision. But increasingly we live in a turbulent world where boundary spanners, young people are important to the strategy making process, though it’s the senior people whose jobs are on the line, rightly so, who make the end decision, but they do it based on other people’s ideas, largely not their own.

Brooke Struck: Okay. So let’s dig into that a little bit. Let’s start with the boundary spanners, the postmoderns themselves, what is it that they’re seeking in their workplace engagements and how do these contrast to the expectations of moderns?

Karl Moore: Well, it’s interesting because I wrote a Forbes blog about OK Boomers, let’s stop making fun of millennials. And the point I was making is that I teach undergraduate, so I talked to my friends who are more my age and tell them and they roar with laughter at the foolishness of young people. And we see that the gymnast at the Olympics for the US had stood away, and then tennis players were called from Japan at the French open.

So the world kind of, part of the world boomers mock them and said, suck it up. We’ve had to do this, you do that. But then the world said, wait a minute, these young women are onto something, that mental health, and the case of the gymnast, she kind of lost at a certain point. And if you lose it, you could really hurt yourself. Like there was a physical reason not to do this if your mind is not fully there. So there’s a change there in terms of how we view the world and our priorities. What I would argue that the boomers make fun of a couple years later, want the same things.

So I think there’s an alignment, particularly the boomers who are older, they’re more just paid off. Their kids are growing up and they go, what’s the point of it all. So they and the Z’s are kind of a natural group to work together. Now, but it’s the older millennials and the Xers, and some of the boomers that wrestle with this, just saying: that’s different than we were brought up with. But what we need to do is say, we need to learn from the front lines. And if you don’t listen to Z’s and young millennials, you’re a jerk.

So the old school of going out and saying, here’s what we’re going to do and here’s my vision, go forward and go do it is seen as rude, insulting, and authoritarian, where we need to spend more time listening and getting their side. So a good manager, a good leader would tend to listen more than they talk today. And there is a time to make a decision. There is a time to go forward and show leadership.

David Benson runs Aldo, a big shoe company around the world, and David’s six, seven, six, eight and 300 pounds. He’s not overweight, he’s just giant. And he’s the CEO. So when he shows up, we all know who he is. Now, if he goes to a strategy meeting, he knows what he knows and his head already broke. He’s already got that down. But if he starts talking as an extroverted CEO at the beginning, everyone will be quiet and afterwards go, that’s why you’re the CEO, David. I love it. So what he’s learned to be is as an extrovert, shut up and listen, and get to say, “Brooke, what do you think?” “Susan, what do you think?” “Sam, what do you think?” What happens is what’s in mind for strategy evolves through that conversation. Now happy thought at the end, he’s CEO, he gets to decide.

But as he’s listening to the younger people, got their input, and sometimes they disagree and that’s fine. That’s just discussion. He gets to decide, but his ideas have changed since he walked in the room by your input. So it’s this idea of listening more, taking onboard the input, but at a certain point, we have to make a decision and move forward. The more senior people get to do that, we’re reasonably happy if they do, if they listened to us and don’t have to slavishly fall down in front of every one of our ideas, but they at least listen to us, respect and take on board some of our thinking.

Brooke Struck: So what the postmoderns are seeking is to have their voices heard and to actually have some input, not necessarily into making the final call about which direction things are going to go, but at least seeing that the inputs that they’re providing are somehow integrated into that decision making process. It’s not about winning every argument, but it is about participating in every conversation.

Karl Moore: Yeah, and part of this question is at a very high level, who has truth? And this is not a new question because you remember in the New Testament, Pontius Pilate, when they brought Jesus to be crucified, he said, truth, what is truth? And he washed his hands in the matter. So we’ve wrestled with this as humanity for a long time. And if ever two people witness an accident, you have different views of it. And partly that’s fine, just different emotional responses and so on. But the idea of saying truth would lie to some degree with the boundary spanners, therefore we need to make room for that. On the other hand, the older people have some experience and go, yeah, 20 years ago we tried and it failed because of this reason. You got to meld that together to come to some sense of what is the truth.

So when I was young, there was a lot of truth in the capital T. I still believe there is some, but it’s much less. So it still seems like ‘don’t harass women’. This is just true, and that’s a strong truth. But there’s less truth than there used to be. There’s more uncertainty about the world, therefore we need to be more flexible and recognize there’s multiple sources of truth and there’s less truth to the capital T, and truth changes. So I say to older people, I’m not as wise as someone my age 20 years ago was, and the half-life of my wisdom is shorter than it used to be, not because I’m a bad person, it’s just lessons I learned 30 years ago are largely irrelevant. Not totally, but largely irrelevant in today’s world. This was before the internet, Brooke.

That’s how old I am. So something where you go like just guys, it was a different world back then. Put aside. So when I teach executives, I say to them, I knew Martin Dempsey, who was the joint chiefs of staff for Obama, most senior general in the US. And one of the things he said was, “Karl, generals fight the battles of their youth,” which is a famous saying in military. The point he was making, he was taught by men and women that were in Vietnam when he was in Vietnam, by people from World War II. So they taught him about strategy, largely irrelevant for Vietnam.

And then he was a general in Desert Storm, and he recognized what he was taught as a young man, what he learned in Vietnam, very compelling lessons, and what Desert Storm was, was a very different world. Some lessons were ‘your buddy in the foxhole is your closest friend and he or she better have your back’, because literally you might be shot unless he’s got your back. So those are profound military lessons from the Roman times, but so much more it changed. So he said, generals fight the battles for youth.

I asked older executives, what lessons do you throw over the side of the boat? When I did it at sea, and I said, train to be with the customer. But I said, what are you throwing away because they’re no longer relevant? And that’s a question older people must ask themselves increasingly.

Brooke Struck: Okay, I want to start pulling this apart and asking about what it is that people can do to lean into this trend. And I want to say it, pull it apart, I mean, I want to ask about different levels or areas within an organization. So one of the questions that you’ve just framed there, what are you tossing over the side? What are you jettisoning?

Brooke Struck: In terms of action, what can senior executives do to lean into this trend?

Karl Moore: Well, in the book I’ve got six lessons. So let me just talk about a couple of them. One is very fundamental, listen more, talk less. This is tough. We touched on what it is that you got to listen to young people from a viewpoint of strategy and a view point of being an effective leader with them. So we’ve gone from an age of deference to an age reference. In the past week, defer to the older people. I’m slightly bitter about this, Brooke, but just as they get older, it goes away. But anyway, young people are taught my story is as good as your story. From a viewpoint of leading them, you need to take that on board and listen to them.

There’s the strategic part, the hard-nosed business person, then there’s a part about leadership, you just need to understand that they believe their story is as good as yours. It just the nature of it. So you need to spend more time listening, as we’ve talked about, deferring to their insights and to be very much an active listener, is kind of the thing where that’s one of the skillsets of leader, is to be that active listener where you’re very much engaged when they have to say, get your feedback, what you’ve learned from them, and it’s around their ideas rather than your ideas.

Another key thing is the need for feedback among younger people. Now, three things feed this, one is video games. Our son plays video games I’ve tried, but there’s an enormous amount of feedback all the time. Social media, it’s amazing. I mean, it’s embarrassing, but sometimes it gets boring, I put up something on LinkedIn. One of the first things I do is how many likes did I get? So on social media, we get an enormous amount of feedback of what works, what doesn’t, what resonates with people. And we work on wording, they get it right. So social media really impacts our desire for feedback.

Then we have helicopter parents. So like I remember as a boy, with the Bobby MRA, we’d go ride our bikes at age 10 in Toronto to a giant park by yourself, the Scarborough Bluffs. And we’d be horrified if a parent did today. Just two boys, and the assumption was any man or woman would help if you ask them for help, even if they had a trench coat on. Today we’d go, no, don’t do that. But so parenting was much more relaxed among the boomers parents, but it isn’t today. What we see is also in school, my wife teaches grade five, but there’s so much more feedback.

Part of what generation Z are looking for from their managers is feedback. And so they want feedback a lot more than the past. And I see this among my students. To a certain point I say to them, Brooke, “I’ve run out of feedback. I’m now making it up. I’m just grasping it out of the year. Ignore it.” What strikes me is particularly interesting is that they argue with my feedback, partly because in the past, when I gave them two or three points, they probably couldn’t argue with, but when we get down number five or six and go, “I’m not sure I agree.” I’ve learned to go, “You may be right.” But when, as a manager in the past, when I was an idea manager, 5% I’m thinking, what do I say to Brooke after the meeting?

Where today it’s more like 20% or 25%, a big part of my time as a manager I go, Brooke did a presentation. Brooke is going to eagerly turn to me after the meeting as we get in the car or in the Metro and he’s going to say, how can I improve? And if I just say, “You did a good job, Brooke, it’s all fine,” you’re not going to be happy. You want feedback to improve. And that’s a good thing. We got to think about how do we get more feedback to people. That’s a bigger part of the managerial job, is giving feedback and that’s good because they want to improve, they want to get better. So it’s part of our job.

And one of the interesting parts of feedback is under review, which in the valley, I go down the valley couple of times a year before the pandemic to see what’s going on there because they’re five years ahead of Toronto, Montreal, the rest of the world. So I go down there and thousands of alumni, and I used to go there when I worked for Hitachi. And yeah, so I’ve been going for 30 years or something. The annual review, I remember doing them, I hated doing it and I hated getting it. And you spend an hour making sure I understand I’m not the top performer. So you get to a point on my claws, what’s wrong, and it just is depressing, just to get me to be number two instead of number one.

And so what we want is they have largely done away with annual review and go, let’s do reviews and feedback on a very regular basis to improve and up my game. So I think we need to take on board getting rid of that performance review on an annual basis and doing it much more often. So I think feedback is an important area that we need to change in terms of how we approach people. So I’ll continue on to the third of the six points, maybe we can take a break for a minute there, is that when I was young at IBM, Brooke, if anybody got emotional in a meeting, we stopped the meeting and have coffee. As soon as emotion reared its ugly head. Emotion was lower than analysis. Analysis is way up here, emotion’s here.

They’re just on the same plane, where post-modern thought, what we teach young people is that emotions and thought are similar, partly because what is thought, what is truth? Spreadsheets lie. Data is not always… you know, garbage in, garbage out. These are some things that we understand that people question increasingly, but what emotions are, are much more valued than in the past. A colleague of mine, he was a PhD at McGill, he’s now at NCF for years, and I’ve worked with him. And this came up with a five forces model, not of emotional quotient, because you and I have emotional quotient, Brooke, it’s that as a manager, I’ve got to manage the emotions of my team.

And so part of what a leader does is manage emotions and spend time thinking about what specific action do I take, for example, to get fun and passion. Because if you want to innovation and creativity, you need fun and passion, you need a lightness. So what do I do in order to get that, make room for innovation and make room for creativity and a lightness, an elusiveness, rather than let’s do it by the book. And this is something that you’ve got to do by a process and by a book or our expenses, for example. So it’s a matter of saying part of this saying emotions and analysis, similar, we’ve got to spend more time on emotions and actively managing and thinking about it because that’s the postmortal we live in. So that’s three of the points.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. Maybe we can dig into one really immediate example. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of posts tirades, if you will, against PowerPoint, against decks. And the kinds of meetings and the kinds of conversations that those foster. So you were talking about senior executives trying to get input from frontline employees. One kind of mental model I have of how that works is the frontline employee has an idea that they want to send up the chain. The first person that’s got to get past is their direct manager. Their direct manager has some role as a facilitator to play there. A bit of a gatekeeper and a bottleneck, I think in larger bureaucratic organizations, that’s often the bane of the existence, right? Is that there’s just far too much filtration going on and not enough making it up.

But part of the role there is to facilitate, but when that gate is passed, when that facilitation has happened, what is the kind of conversation that we want to be having between a frontline and employee and a senior executive? And is a PowerPoint deck all nicely beautified and polished and refined really the right vehicle to have that kind of conversation? Because it tends to promote this presentation of an absolutely bulletproof idea, everything is totally airtight, it’s hermetic. It’s not actually about talking about it, it’s almost about narrating your way through slides. Obviously I’m describing a not-very-ideal presentation, but you get my point.

Karl Moore: No, certainly. I mean, it’s interesting. At Google as we recall, they’ve done away with that. And you just get through more of a conversation discussion. And with my students, part of it is they don’t want to go through all that, partly because they know it’s crafted and you avoided any holes or difficulties. It’s something where you get into the substance of it, the idea and get into a real conversation, is what we want to do rather than just something which is put together and it’s about communication skills, as opposed to about discussion of thought and kicking around ideas. So that’s something where I see more and more of that out there and less certainty about, it’s just guaranteed that the logic is impeccable, partly because we have competitors.

So it’s more of an evolving of an idea rather than this immaculate conception that it’s perfect from birth, that it’s an evolution, and we want to learn from different parts of the organization. Different people bring different views to it. But I remember IBM when we had new products, we had, marketing was there, the typically black back in the day. Then there was the guys from construction, or from production, with literally overalls on. Then it was all men primarily, but the different views of the world.

Brooke Struck: So what are some ways that senior executives can promote more of that kind of conversation? It sounds like from what you’re saying, part of it is changing the expectations of the outcome of the meeting. The outcome of the meeting is not necessarily just approval, okay, this thing now either lives or dies, it’s that we’re going on to run a larger scale experiment.

What the conversation is that that kind of leads up to that is ‘here’s the kind of the history of small experiments that we’ve done, each bigger than the one before, and what we’ve learned along the way’. And the capstone of that conversation is this is the next experiment that we’d like to run, that is big enough that we want your approval to do this. We need your buy-in in order to go and run an experiment at that scale. Is that right?

Karl Moore: Yeah. Partly it’s buy-in because they have authority to sign for $1 million, whatever, but it’s also that they generally go, here’s the data we came up with, here’s our assumptions. Here’s how we view it. What do you think? Are they getting someone with more experience, more seniority to put there or in the water as well and think about it? But I think it’s partly as senior managers have got to spend more time with junior people, with Zs and millennials, and part of that is just having breakfast. Part of it is going down and sitting in the company cafeteria.

I remember CN, it was a crown court. So Brian Mulrooney asked his clerk to run it. Two things he said he did on the first day, which were quite interesting. One is he took the picture of the queen down, no longer the government or the prime minister, and put up a stock ticker from the TSC, the Toronto Stock Exchange. He was saying, we have a new boss, our share price. It’s no longer the prime ministers, it’s the share price. They will judge. Then he closed the executive dining room, and had executives go eat with the average CN person. And what he encouraged by his behavior is just go down there and just sit at a table and just listen to the men and women.

And then he’d go, “Mr. Kelly A?” And you go, “Yeah,” he says, “So what’d you guys do today?” And he showed an openness to listening to them and hearing what they had to say. So I think that sense of getting through the filters. I remember I did the first study at IBM and PCs in Canada. So I go to present to the president of Canada, 14,000 people, all five of my bosses were there.

But the CEO knew that, and I was like 24, 25, too young to know better. And so at the end of it, he put his arm around me and said, “Let’s go down and sing Christmas carols.” It was December 22nd, and back in the day we sang Christmas carols. He wanted to actually know what I felt. And I remember looking back and my managers were all afraid I would tell him, but I was too young and they couldn’t punish me. But he knew, Karl Corcoran was his name, he knew that all these filters existed. So a good senior executive knows those filters are there and tries to get away with them, and listen to people one-on-one or in small groups to younger people.

Part of it is getting through those filters. And this is a well-recognized problem, but we have got to be creative in doing it.

Brooke Struck: Especially in the age of remote work, it feels like so much of what has been collapsed or closed down is all of those spaces, and I literally mean physical spaces, for those spontaneous interactions to occur. All of the serendipity is gone because you don’t cross paths on the way to, and from the coffee machine, you don’t just accidentally find yourself at the cafeteria lunch table with X, Y, or Z person from the organization. How do we bring back those spaces for serendipity?

Karl Moore: It’s really tough. Some people have done it on Zoom somewhat, but I think it’s going back to the office, like McGill, we’re starting classes in a week or two. And I’ll be there in-person, I was down today and there’s some people there. And it was genuine pleasure to see colleagues I haven’t seen from year and a half, but at the cafe, I go there for coffee once or twice a day. Where you’re in line and someone in front of you just says, “Hey, Karl, I was thinking,” or I’m more apt to pitch them an idea, but I’m not going to set an appointment or a Zoom meeting to see you, but if I run into you walking into the Brockman building, you just say, “I’m thinking we’ll go to Ghana next year. What do you think?”

There’s that sense of serendipity and of connection which happens in the office, in the coffee shop and things like that, which it’s hard to replicate. People have tried, but it’s tough because it’s more apt to, “Oh, Brooke, I’ve been thinking about something you said the other day. I haven’t seen you for a month.” But on the other hand, I’m not going to set up a Zoom meeting for random thought, it just seems silly. And after 30 seconds I’ll go, “Was there anything else?” You go, “No?” And it’s all very embarrassing. But some organizations have done a few things with the margins on that, but I think being back in the office at least a few days a week, health allowing, will be great.

Brooke Struck: Yeah. This is a big question that’s been on my mind. It seems like there are kind of different thresholds that you need to meet in order to have certain events take place. One of the nice things about moving from at least some of the email world onto Slack, for instance, or another direct messaging or instant messaging service, is that the threshold for what’s sufficient to warrant a message is lower in these instant message or direct message environments. And so you can-

Karl Moore: Yeah, yeah. That could work well for that.

Brooke Struck: Yeah, you can have much more casual conversations by those kinds of services than you can by email. But it still seems like there’s a threshold below anything that we have in the digital ecosystem right now, the remote ecosystem, and below that threshold is a lot of really, really valuable stuff.

Karl Moore: Yeah, no question about it.

Brooke Struck: What are the kinds of stop gap measures that we can use? What are some of the practices that you’ve seen out there that are showing a bit of promise at accessing this really low threshold stuff? So we talked earlier about the senior executive and having a scheduled meeting where there’s an agenda and there’s probably, there’s not just a purpose to the meeting, but there’s an agenda, four or five points that you’ll hit in order to try and fulfill the purpose of the meeting.

It seems like there’s a whole other category of type of encounter that we need. It’s not just about doing away with agendas, it’s about rethinking the problem entirely. Are you seeing any promising ideas out there that seem like they might be getting some traction on this?

Karl Moore: Well, something we’re part of is in meetings, what’s randomly happening out there. Like just what random thoughts have struck you from interactions with clients or customers or with suppliers and just, what are things you’re thinking about? It doesn’t have to be some big thing, it’s just a thought. It’s a notion rather than some idea. But it’s just something where we’re looking to connect the dots of various people and other people go, “Yeah, I’ve seen that too.” And you might identify a trend.

There’s got to be room for that kind of more relaxed conversation without a big agenda, but more of just what’s happening out there, and catching up on the turbulent environment, catching up on the customers and their needs and so on, what your competitors are doing. I think there’s just that room for that more relaxed conversation as part of it, which is easy to do in the office, for sure.

Brooke Struck: Somewhere, I think I’ve read that the, well, one of a billion definitions of intelligence is the ability to entertain an idea without being committed to it. It seems like we are missing opportunities for intelligent discussion. And what I mean by that is we’re missing the opportunities to put out ideas for conversation, to which we are not committed.

Like you wouldn’t call a meeting to talk about something that was just a curiosity, something that stood out. If you have a meeting, it’s because you’ve got a point, you have a purpose, you have something to say. How do we create that space to put something out there that we are not committed to so that we can be intelligent together rather than intelligent only on our own?

Karl Moore: Yeah, I think it’s a matter of just making part of that agenda kind of send us articles for reading, those things are striking you. Because we’re looking for low power signals. Before they come and slap you in the face, go self evident, this is happening, but just something where just the initial signal out there that we may misinterpret. But I think just making room for those conversations is something that senior people have got to do.

Brooke Struck: All right. And I think lastly, one of the questions I’d like to ask you about is the transition point. We’re working in organizations right now where we’ve got both moderns and postmoderns working together. And certainly, it tends to be the case that as you move up the hierarchy of the organization, you’re going to get more boomers and gen Xers. So it’ll be more modern at the top, but not necessarily more postmodern at the bottom. You can still have a lot of rank and file employees who are gen Xers and boomers. So how is it that senior executives can manage this kind of transition group within their organization where they’ve got people with an entire spectrum of expectations working at the front line?

Karl Moore: Well, I think the older people, the boomers like myself and the Xers have become postmodern in their thinking, but they were taught a modern world view. So they’re open to it. Pretty could help explain then why young people think the way they do, they go, that’s a good point, and they would largely agree with them. And you also see that some of the boomers will retire or go more part-time or step down from the really demanding roles. And so, plus you have hypertension, which are younger people that are going to jump through the system more rapidly and become in charge rapidly. And I’ve taught high potentials, and then I’m with them running big companies now in Canada, and we recognize them as the anointed.

It’s kind of, there are some things where that age hierarchical approach no longer works, is no longer accepted. So I think there’s some ways we see some of that happening, but I think a central idea here is reverse mentoring, where I would argue 20-25% of time, young people should be teaching me and mentoring me because they’re in the turbulent world, they’re more with it. They understand where the world’s going. Now, when I say the students, they’re delighted and I usually follow up and say, so what’s the flip side of that. And very rarely does an undergraduate point out that 75% of time, I’m mentoring you.

There’s still a big role for me to mentor young people, but the newest idea is that young people mentor me as a hard-nosed business person, because if I want to make profits and be successful, I need to listen to them to find out about a merchant strategy, I need to find out what’s going on in the world. Where’s the world going? Where’s that turbulence, what direction is it taking us? So I think that idea of reverse mentoring is a very, very important one.

One final point is about purpose, that young people are looking for purpose. It goes back to the, he who dies with the most toys bumper sticker, is that it was shallow, and we looked at share prices where when you look at climate change, when you look at what’s happening in places like Afghanistan, you look at racial inequities, you go, we have some big problems that our organization should make some contribution towards, not merely paying our senior executives a lot of money. So I think that’s an important thing too, to get that purpose of the organization front and center. And if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to hire as many generation Z and millennials as you thought you could. As they really are, and I can tell you this from the classroom, absolutely attracted to that.

Brooke Struck: Karl, thanks very much. This has been a really vibrant and stimulating conversation. And I think especially as we transition towards more hybrid forms of work, it’ll be very, very helpful for us and for all of our listeners to be thinking through these questions. So thank you very much.

Karl Moore: My pleasure, Brooke. Always a pleasure to talk.

About the Guest

Karl Moore

Karl Moore is a professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University and has been an Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College, Oxford University for over 20 years. Before that he was on the Oxford University faculty from 1995 to 2000. He has taught on executive education and MBA programs at Stanford, Harvard Business School, IMD, LBS, INSEAD, Oxford, McGill, USC, Duke, Darden, and Cambridge, and authored 28 refereed journal articles, 10 books, and have over 3,600 Google Scholar citations. For the last 20 years he has worked with Henry Mintzberg teaching and running leadership programs.

About the Interviewer

Brooke Struck

Brooke Struck is Research Director at The Decision Lab. He holds a doctorate in philosophy of science. His dissertation research focused on the relationship between quantitative and qualitative research methods, and the relationship between research and other social systems such as language, history and politics. Since finishing his academic work, Dr. Struck has worked in science & innovation policy, first within the Canadian federal government, and then subsequently in the private sector at Science-Metrix. In recent years, he has been researching the interface of big data analytics with organizational decision-making structures, especially in policy-making contexts.

Listen to next

Insights

Can Borrowing Bring Us Together?

Dr. Straeter and Jessica Exton sit down with The Decision Lab to discuss the perks and pitfalls of lending for friendships.

Insights

Communicating During The Coronavirus

The coronavirus has brought many changes to the ways in which we communicate: video chats have replaced coffee chats, and stuffy lecture halls have been swapped for group calls, to name a few. In this article, Preeti Kotamarthi uses behavioral science concepts to recommend some ways for organizations to communicate better during (and perhaps after) the pandemic.