As sustainably leaders, you already know the vital importance of working with and engaging multiple stakeholders. In order to be successful, you need to understand their priorities: what’s important to them, and how they define value and return on investment. 

As Millennials continue to enter the workforce and the buildings in which they work, the stakeholder set you need to influence is changing from a generational point of view. Leveraging the three generations that make up the majority of today’s workplace—Baby Boomers, Generation X and Millennials—may be an underutilized tool that could catapult your sustainability efforts and help you achieve continuous success.

Population Shifts

Much has been written about the changing demographics of the U.S. workforce with Baby Boomers starting to exit, Generation X assuming top leadership roles and Millennials entering with expectations that are quite different from those of the generations before them. It’s equally important to understand not only where each of these generations now sits in your organization but also how they will shift during the next 15-20 years as you nourish your long-term sustainability efforts.

In general terms, as the following charts demonstrate, Boomers make up a large portion of today’s population, but they are exiting. As they do so, Millennials are taking their places.  Boomers are often the senior executives needed to get your sustainability initiatives started; Xers are strong leaders who need the experience of taking the reins; and Millennials need accelerated exposure and experience to assume, at much younger ages than their older generational counterparts, newly vacated leadership roles.

Understanding These Three Groups

Anyone wishing to best engage these groups regarding sustainability initiatives must first understand what motivates each of them.

The Boomers: The Original Environmentalists

The first Boomers, born right after World War II, grew up with a picture-perfect family: mom, dad, a few brothers and sisters, a dog and grandparents who lived in “the country.” Boomers were confident that their lives could be better than those of their parents, and they were raised with the idea that you got what you wanted if you worked hard.

Baby Boomers came of age at a time when the relationships between the environment and human activity were reconsidered in powerful ways. Born between 1946 and 1964 and at 76.4 million strong, Boomers planted the seeds of the modern-day green movement as the idealistic “flower children” of the 1960s.

Fifty years later, as they prepare to exit the workforce, they are anxious to leave a lasting legacy—if only their companies will tap into their experience, sense of social conscientiousness and love of the environment. Often sitting high within your organization, Boomers can be powerful levers of change.

Generation X: Cynical Innovators

Born between 1965 and 1979, Generation X is a smaller generation (only 41 million) wedged between the behemoth Boomer and Millennial generations. They grew up with really busy, and most likely divorced, parents. Xers witnessed the aftermath of Vietnam, Watergate, gas crises, the Cold War, HIV/AIDS, President Reagan being shot, and  the Challenger space shuttle diaster. They watched as their parents were laid off from companies they were extremely loyal to, and they were the first “techies.”

Xers entered the workforce during the dot-com bubble and have subsequently survived three recessions. They have become accustomed to change and a lack of permanence. Xers “Are surprisingly disengaged, dismissive or doubtful about whether global climate change is happening, and they don’t spend much time worrying about it,” says Jon D. Miller, author of “The Generation X Report.”

However, Xers are realistic and pragmatic and want to achieve real, tangible results. They crave change and have a knack for creating better ways of doing things.  A Business Insider study found that a majority of its respondents (70 percent) agreed that Gen Xers are the most effective managers compared with managers from the Boomer (25 percent) or Gen Y (5 percent) generations. Members of Gen X scored the highest when it comes to being a “revenue generator” (58 percent), possessing traits of “adaptability” (49 percent), “problem-solving” (57 percent) and “collaboration” (53 percent).

Millennials:  Driven by Purpose

Millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, comprise 36 percent of the workforce. Many cite the group as being overconfident, entitled social media junkies who just want vacation time, a great title and a seat at the C-suite table their second day on the job. Oh, and don’t forget their need for constant praise and recognition! These are exaggerations, but they contain kernels of truth: 91 percent of Millennials expect to stay with their companies for less than three years because their jobs aren’t meeting their needs. Fifty-six percent of Millennials won’t work at a company that bans social media—they expect to be connected. In fact, it’s reported that they would rather give up their sense of smell than technology.

Sixty-nine percent believe regular attendance at the office is unnecessary. They don’t need face time. They demand flexibility. Increased access to faster, cheaper and smaller IT technologies makes it possible for people to work from everywhere, so this group is finding the idea of cubicles and offices less and less compelling as more attractive working spaces (coffee shops, home offices) become viable.

Millennials are the most environmentally conscious group in the U.S. Millennials need to feel a connection to a company’s mission beyond profit. They feel personally responsible for making a difference in the world. They are motivated to work harder when they know their work adds value to the company and the planet.

The Three Generations  in Action

Paladino works with large Fortune 500 organizations that are implementing complex sustainability and green building programs, and we have witnessed firsthand how these generations interact. Often the top executive, usually a Boomer, has set up traditions and values for a company’s leadership teams—examples include speed of delivery, hitting budgets or excellence in execution.  These leadership teams, consisting mostly of Xers, tend to be strong operational managers that deliver results based on the values set forth by the Boomer leader. 

Along the way the Boomer executive embraces sustainability because of its PR/CSR value, as a competitive differentiator, as framework for operational excellence or as a company directive from the CEO. They go out and hire a sustainability expert, who happens to be a Millennial.  This expert is completely mission driven and lacks the business or company experience to link the value set of sustainability to the value set that currently exists in the organization. The result is that the sustainability expert will evangelize green and propose changes to systems and processes through the lens of environmental stewardship while the Xer leadership teams are evaluating the changes through the lens of the business values of the organization. Both groups tend to become frustrated, which results in the perception that green is being pitted against the company value set. For example, the Millennial sustainability leader in a real estate company might pitch switching to LED lights for all built assets because of how green they are, but all the Xers hear is that it will cost more, blow the construction budget or cause a schedule delay. The Boomer executive then struggles trying to find either the right sustainability expert or the right place to fit such an expert into the organization.

Engaging Three Generations

To solve this dilemma it’s important to leverage the values, experiences and points of view for each member of a sustainability team to create superior results aligned with triple top-line business value. Each generation wants to be engaged and has unique strengths that can be unleashed in a stakeholder group.

Boomers believe in large causes and are convinced they can change the world. They are open to new ideas. Sustainability leaders need to leverage these experienced Boomers before they exit the workforce. They are skilled in organizing large groups of people around a mission and then creating a strategic plan to make it happen. They aren’t afraid of hard work and are tireless in pursuit of their goals. They are unique in their ability to balance profit and prosperity motive with a social one.

Boomers can be enrolled by appealing to their need to leave a legacy for future generations. Sustainability initiatives and programs align to their social values. Many are looking for “encore” career opportunities and want to do something great for a second curtain call. Leadership roles within sustainability initiatives may be a perfect fit. They can accelerate sustainable progress while building new leaders. Engage them in rallying multiple stakeholders to achieve large organizational goals. Use their idealism to drive change. Their enthusiasm and energy will help to rally others around sustainability to achieve measurable results that benefit the company and the planet.

Sustainability leaders should also harness the strengths of Xers. Gen X and Gen Y will be working together for years to come, and their collaboration will be vital for the long-term success of initiatives. 

Engage Xers by focusing on their resourcefulness. They are independent and innovative, and they will find ways to improve your company’s environmental performance. Xers have no issues with letting go of “how things used to be done.” They value the differences others bring to the team and genuinely believe diverse views are important in achieving results.

Xers believe in transparency and authenticity, and they are excellent partners for CDP, GRESB or GRI reporting efforts.

Millennials can spot inauthenticity pretty clearly. You’re going to need more than a few recycling bins in the office to call your workplace green.

These young workers are goal and success driven. They’re optimistic, independent and overeducated. They believe in transparency, free-flowing information and inclusive decision-making. Imagine what it would feel like to work for a company that set goals and then allowed for authentic collaboration in decision making and rewarded those who made it happen. Employees who are asked for their best with challenging new assignments are more likely to stay. Millennials will be enthusiastic supporters of change initiatives, will grow and benefit from exposure to cross-company leadership, and learn to pitch their green metrics in a business-centric way, all of which will help them and your business succeed.

Aligning the Stakeholder Group Around Common Goals

As demonstrated in the example above, it’s not enough to understand the unique drivers and strengths of each generation—a consensus among the stakeholder group needs to be built to ensure they are all working toward shared outcomes, even if it’s in their individual ways!

At Paladino, we believe the first step in engaging three generations is to do a value-mapping exercise that allows the sustainability and business leader to truly uncover the unwritten rules that are driving the company’s behavior. By unlocking the metrics that the company uses to make business decisions, sustainability strategies can be ranked according to their impact. Many times, a sustainability initiative is the forcing function that makes a company write down its key metrics for the first time. In a multigenerational environment, metrics can be the universal language that allows the team to align to a common set of goals and objectives.

Second, you should pull your execution team together to create a results dashboard that highlights the sustainability metrics that everyone is trying to achieve. With this dashboard, the sustainability leader can now talk about LED lights from more than just a carbon-savings perspective. The dashboard will allow for conversations that include how LEDs will assist in achieving cost savings and provide some talking points for corporate reporting or public relations efforts. This way, the Millennial leader understands how the effort fits into the organization’s mission and purpose; the Xer leader now can see how sustainability measures help them do their job more effectively rather than slowing them down; and the Boomer executive satisfies the need to win and communicates a lasting legacy.

By keeping the dynamics of your multigenerational stakeholder group in mind while designing how you will collaborate toward creating organizational change, you will have a greater likelihood of success while fostering a meaningful experience for your team.