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Leading Gen Z: Kathryn Landis on Creating Inclusive Multi-Generational Workplaces

“During the onboarding process, it's essential to connect Gen Z employees with the right people, tools, and resources to provide the support they need and establish agreements that foster a productive relationship. Investing in this relationship upfront sets the stage for tremendous benefits later on.”   Kathryn Landis

Kathryn Landis, Executive and Team Coach of Kathryn Landis Consulting and Professor of C-Suite Leadership at New York University, emphasizes the need for leaders to understand and address the unique needs and values of different generations, notably Gen Z. For leaders seeking to navigate generational differences, Kathryn suggests being intentional in communication and onboarding processes, establishing shared values and providing mentorship opportunities to create a positive workplace culture.

Stephen Matini: I'm curious to ask you, how did you get into human development?

Kathryn Landis: I was first exposed to coaching when I was in business school. I went to Northwestern University in Chicago, and I took a class on personal leadership and coaching. I really enjoyed it, but I was already on track to go into marketing. 

Fast forward 10 or 15 years, I had a boss at a large Fortune 500 company who was not supportive of the company's parental leave policy. When I had my son, this leader made my life miserable. I thought back to that class and realized that if this leader had coaching and support, she probably wouldn't have shown up the way she did. 

I got into this because I don't want anyone to ever have the same experience I had. I want to help leaders reach the next level of greatness, empower and inspire their teams, and become the best versions of themselves in work and life.

SM: Do you prefer to work with teams, or do you prefer to coach people one-on-one?

KL: I think I'm at my best when I'm coaching the leader one-on-one and their team, so we're doing both. 

With the leader, I help them think about how they want to show up as a leader, create followership, and communicate their vision. With the team, I help them operate most effectively, make agreements among each other, and think about creating working norms to be the best team they can be.

Everyone has to go to work, and everyone's been on bad teams. Think about the worst team you've ever been on. I'm getting negative feelings right now just thinking about that. It could be at work, school, or your softball league. 

In contrast, being part of the best team changes your outlook, how you show up, and what you're able to accomplish. If I can help the leader along with their team, that's where I see major progress and can make a significant impact.

SM: Team chemistry seems to have a life of its own. Sometimes you're lucky, and things just flow. Other times, no matter how hard you try, the team feels heavy. Is it always possible to turn things around in a team?

KL: I would say it's always possible, but you also have to consider if you have the right people on the team. Do they have the necessary skill sets? Are they able to work together?

You can have diverse perspectives, but if they can't work together, it's not useful. Is their work interdependent in a way that motivates them to collaborate effectively? And is there a compelling purpose for the team? Do people know why the team exists, what their priorities are, and what the impact is on the customer or the organization?

I find that many dysfunctional teams lack a compelling purpose. People don't know why the team exists. Maybe the right people aren't on board, or their work isn't interdependent—they're just a group of people reporting to the same leader. You need those essential conditions to have an effective team.

SM: Have you ever had team members say they don't know where they're going?

KL: I haven't observed that as much, perhaps due to the nature of my work. However, an organization would have a more engaged and motivated workforce if they had a clear, motivational, and inspiring vision of where they want to be in three to five years.

That vision should trickle down to each team or department and then to each individual. Why are you showing up to work? What's the contribution? It doesn't matter if you're in the accounting department or sales; you're all driving toward a goal that hopefully ladders up to something bigger than oneself. It has purpose.

Even if you think, "Hey, I'm working in an accounting firm," you're still helping a customer. Maybe you're helping small business owners make better decisions. How can you take that mission and make it compelling and purposeful for your employees? So they're not just showing up for a paycheck; they're showing up to really change lives.

SM: Have you ever observed an organization with a culture that doesn't fully foster transparency or trust yet has what I call "islands of happiness," where one team works more efficiently than others despite the overall culture?

KL: Much research suggests that a lot of your happiness is based on your immediate boss. If your boss can create the conditions for what Amy Edmondson calls psychological safety and can motivate and inspire the team, there can be islands of happiness. At a more senior level, those overseeing the organization should be concerned about this. Is there someone mindful of the discrepancies or variances between the teams?

SM: Today, teams are very diverse, often comprising different generations. What would you say are the main competencies a good leader should have to effectively lead a diverse team?

KL: We're in a unique time where different generations can be found at work. Many of my clients are Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Gen Z, or younger millennials, each with different expectations about work and life, influenced by their life experiences. 

Gen X and Boomers don't always understand Gen Z and younger millennials, and vice versa. I see this in my students; I teach at NYU, where many master's students are Gen Z, and it's a different perspective. For instance, one student expressed the desire to find a job where they could contribute significantly within six months. As an older millennial, I thought, "Six months, you're just getting oriented." But that's the longevity they seek.

I believe creating shared values and agreements on working norms and communication within the team or department is crucial. Many people rely on expectations, which can lead to misunderstandings and resistance. Getting agreements ensures everyone is on board, and asking, "How can I help you meet this agreement?" increases commitment.

So, for leaders, what agreements can you make with your team to align on critical elements and support a productive workforce?

SM: If I understand correctly, the difference between expectations and agreements is that agreements are negotiated expectations?

KL: Expectations are one-sided. For instance, "Stephen, I want you to show up at 9:00 a.m. for this podcast." 

An agreement, however, would be, "Stephen, I'd like you to show up at 9:00 a.m. for this podcast because it'll be most effectively recorded then. How can I help you do that? What might hinder you from doing so?" If there's no obstacle, and you're committed, we can agree on that plan.

This is a simple example, but it involves a two-way conversation where both parties say yes, and as a leader, you inquire about the help they need from you to fulfill the agreement.

SM: It's more collaborative. 

KL: It's 100% collaboration, as opposed to having an expectation in your mind that you either don't communicate or communicate without asking the other person what they need from you to achieve it.

SM: I find it helpful to understand different generations by recognizing that everyone, from Baby Boomers to Gen Z, has the same fundamental needs. Each generation has experienced unique political, economic, and social circumstances. Do you think life is more challenging for Gen Z compared to Generation Y?

KL: I don't know if I can say whether it's harder or easier, but research shows that Gen Z is facing a mental health crisis as a cohort. Studies indicate that Gen Z is overall depressed, especially after experiencing their formative years during a pandemic, which led to isolation. They are the first true digitally native cohort and haven't had as much in-person interaction as previous generations.

So while it's difficult to define and measure the term "harder," it's clear that Gen Z is struggling, particularly in terms of mental health. This places leaders in a challenging position where they're expected to take on multiple roles beyond just that of a supervisor.

SM: What do you think could be the kindest gesture you could offer to Gen Z?

KL: I co-wrote a Harvard Business Review article about helping Gen Z find their place at work. We know that Gen Z values transparency. This generation has always had information at their fingertips. So being transparent and explaining reasons behind decisions is very beneficial.

Additionally, they're open to discussing formerly taboo topics, such as salary and compensation. Transparency is crucial to them. Perhaps that's the kindest thing, but I would also say it's vital.

SM: In many organizations, achieving a high level of transparency isn't always feasible. How do you see Gen Z navigating through this web of politics?

KL: I think Gen Z is really grappling with that. It's made more challenging by the fact that many of them are remote or working in a hybrid model. Without the usual water cooler talk or mentorship from seasoned colleagues, it's harder for Gen Z to navigate.

What I've seen organizations do effectively is to establish Employee Resource Groups for Gen Z. These groups provide a platform for discussing important issues and pair members with mentors who can help them navigate the organization. It's about creating meaningful connections and interactions.

There's a lot of discussion about returning to the office. However, people don't want to go back to the same routine they had at home. It's essential to rethink the purpose of bringing people into the office and how to make it more intentional, fostering relationships and collaboration that can't be achieved virtually.

SM: One of the biggest challenges my clients face right now is preparing for the demographic shifts in their companies five or ten years down the line. What are some other things companies should be aware of and proactive about to create an environment ready for Gen Z in the future?

KL: Well, first and foremost, they need to accept that employer loyalty has changed. Research shows that over 70% of Gen Z are already thinking about their next job and planning to move within the next two years. Loyalty must be earned every day; it's not assumed that employees will stay for five years just to fill a resume gap.

Additionally, the majority of Gen Z wants to be their own boss. About 90% have their own business, side hustle, or gig. Companies need to align incentives with their career goals and aspirations and keep them engaged in an intentional manner.

SM: Do you think it's fair to say that working with Gen Z can be challenging because they might not always follow traditional workplace instructions, like showing up on time?

KL: I think it depends on people's perspectives, but for many, it's standard to follow instructions from your boss. However, for Gen Z, with their different life experiences, it might be shocking, especially if they're not used to a more authoritarian style in the workforce. In such cases, it's essential to explain the reasons behind the instructions and seek agreement. It might seem extra effort or even a bit ridiculous, but it fosters buy-in and builds a better relationship.

SM: You mentioned Gen Z are a purpose-driven generation. Could you explain this concept further? 

KL: By "purpose-driven," I mean they want their work to have meaning and make an impact. They've been influential in major political and socioeconomic issues like Black Lives Matter and gun control. They're used to having their voices heard and are looking to work for and buy from companies that align with their values.

They're asking, "Are you actually sustainable? Do you promote diversity and inclusion?" They're holding companies accountable for living up to the values they advertise. This accountability is admirable and puts pressure on other generations to follow suit.

In early 2024, Gen Z will outnumber Baby Boomers in the workplace. They're here to stay, so employers need to adapt. I have talks on age diversity at work and leading Gen Z, which provide insights on effectively supporting both Gen Z and older workers who may be facing ageism or feeling left out. There's a dichotomy at both ends of the spectrum to consider.

SM: Have you ever observed differences in organizational synergy when different generations work together compared to when they operate separately?

KL: Lack of cross-functional synergy leads to various problems, and they're not solely age-related. It's like my worst team scenario. When things are going smoothly, it's like seeing the tip of the iceberg; you're unaware of what's happening beneath the surface. But when things start to falter, all the underlying issues become apparent. That's when the truth about what's been happening is revealed.

SM: From our conversation, is there anything in particular you would suggest our readers pay attention to?

KL: The first thing that comes to mind is intentionality. It's crucial to clarify how you want to present yourself as a leader and reflect on whether your actions align with that vision. I also recommend seeking feedback. Do you have a personal board of directors, including colleagues, who can provide insights into how you're perceived? Asking for advice on how to improve can help you become the leader you aspire to be.

SM: What does intentionality mean to you?

KL: To me, it's about being self-aware, staying focused on your behavior, mindset, and how you engage with the world, especially during stressful times when it's easy to lose sight of these things. That's the true test.

SM:  As a leader, how can I be intentional about my Gen Z employees?

KL: It begins from the moment of the interview. It's crucial to clearly communicate the values of your team and organization and ensure alignment. 

During the onboarding process, it's essential to connect Gen Z employees with the right people, tools, and resources to provide the support they need and establish agreements that foster a productive relationship. Investing in this relationship upfront sets the stage for tremendous benefits later on.

SM: To the listeners of this episode who are Gen Z, what message would you like to share with them?

KL: Keep it up. Stay curious. Listen actively and remember that you can learn from everyone, discovering how you want to present yourself and what you want to avoid. Seek out mentors and sponsors; if unsure, look it up. I'm excited for your career and what lies ahead for you.

🎧  Listen on your favorite platform: Listen to the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, or your favorite podcast platform. Subscribe to the Pity Party Over podcast and blog.

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