How Professional Sports Teams are Managing the Multigenerational Mix

The main story about last week’s Super Bowl was how boring it was, but there was another plot line to follow. The Super Bowl was, along with many professional sporting events today, a multigenerational workplace drama.

I can’t help but notice how elite athletes are experiencing today’s unprecedented multigenerational workplace in some of the same ways as the rest of us:

Most young people have never been part of a multigenerational team until their first job:

As Adam Kilgore noted in The Washington Post, “For their whole lives, football players are never more than four years apart from their teammates. Patriots rookies this season suddenly had a quarterback 19 years older than they are.”

This is true for many professional athletes as well as all the rest of us. While few will ever be teammates with Tom Brady, many Millennials and Gen Zs have never had the experience of collaborating on a team with people decades older than they are.

The best leaders of multigenerational teams are remixers who combine the “classic” and the “new”:

Although he didn’t pull off a Super Bowl victory, The LA Rams’ 33-year-old head coach Sean McVay is the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. Alden Gonzalez writes for that McVay is viewed by his colleagues as both a Millennial and an “old soul.” Gonzalez points out two features of McVay’s leadership that I often recommend to leaders of intergenerational teams: 1) the first thing he did when he arrived was listen, and 2) he has made teaching fundamentals more of a priority.

McVay also demonstrates how young leaders can gain respect and commitment while still being friendly with the people they manage. As 28-year-old Rams punter Johnny Hekker described McVay, “He has a very good balance of knowing when he can just be a 33-year-old amongst his peers and then when he gets in front of the team and has to deliver something really important.” That balance can be challenging to find, and I encourage young leaders to find role models who maintain strong boundaries.

Employees of all ages want to feel important:

Football is not the only sport where Millennials are beginning to enter the leadership ranks. The NBA now has its first Millennial head coach in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Ryan Saunders.

As The Washington Post’s Ben Golliver notes, “Saunders says his personal coaching philosophy is centered on confidence-building through ‘positivity, energy and positive reinforcement,’ and his team comes together, after wins and losses, for what all-star center Karl-Anthony Towns calls ‘family time.’

In another great example of allowing a voice to every employee/player, Golliver also reports that, in one of his first acts as head coach, Saunders instituted a policy in which a different player each day gets to select the team’s music. That’s a great example of small leadership choices making a big impression.

The best intergenerational leaders are great communicators:

Over in the NHL, 33-year-old Jeremy Colliton is making a mark as the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks. Tracey Myers of notes Colliton’s focus on communication — another critical focus for leaders of intergenerational teams: “It’s just communication with everyone, as early as possible, with as many as possible, so that everyone is on the same page.”

As these professional sports teams show us, today’s multigenerational workplaces exist outside of just cubicles and office buildings. The ability to communicate effectively across generations has never been so important.

In what other niche industries have you observed the multigenerational workplace in action? Please share!

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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