James Thalman

James Thalman

Best Practices

By James Thalman

If the generational divide between the 20-something baggy-britches and the 50-something fanny-packers is untethering your communications team, don’t come whining to Kevin Willett. As far as the veteran public safety consultant is concerned, the last professionals who should be judging each other based on age or appearance are first, first responders.

“The looks and age of a fellow calltaker have as much to do with the course of a 9-1-1 call as the looks and age of the caller,” Willett told The Journal after leading another packed-in audience through his popular “Bridging the Generational Divide” workshop. Although he clearly and often told those 30 and younger in the audience at NAVIGATOR ’13 in Salt Lake City this past April that “you don’t get a trophy just for showing up anymore,” most of his verbal improvised explosive devices were meant for the biases of Baby Boomers. The over-50 set tends to be way too quick to judge and too slow to mentor younger folks coming up, he said.

The first Boomer notion to go ka-boom was the old chestnut that because someone is older, they’re better. “You’ve lived longer and you know more—at least you should know more—but you don’t know it all,” Willett had earlier and unashamedly announced to the class. “And just because mid-20s staffers expect to take vacations when they’re scheduled and don’t seem all that eager to give the center total control of their lives doesn’t mean they don’t know what loyalty is or what real work feels like.”

Willett, who is part stand-up comedian and part dispatch evangelist, exhorted veteran workers to ponder a question too few dispatchers and too few people in all walks of life never seem to stumble across: Am I the problem?

“What we need to finally get to is the fact that the problem with ‘them’ is most often a problem with ‘us’ believing that different is bad or worse or weird when different, as it always was and always will be, is just different,” he said.

Grouping up into our like-looking, like-minded, same-age cliques is easy, and maybe just human nature, Willett said. In this day and age of instant communication and social networking coolness zipping at light speed, people categorizing and often simply dismissing or taunting someone because they’re different has become the new American pastime.

The best rule of thumb: Appearances can be deceiving. Get that, and you’ve got the thing in hand, he said. On the other hand, a person’s accouterment can be very revealing and accurate: If you have something called a pen or two or three in your shirt or jacket pocket or have read an actual ink-on-paper publication within the past two or three years, you’re a Boomer. Time to start getting out of the way.

If you think wristwatches are heirlooms or that libraries with actual printed books are museums, or you’ve never worn a pair of shiny shoes, you’re generation X, Y, or Z and are probably regarded most for being the main reason this country is going straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.

What folks born after World War II and before 1966 should be doing is getting ready to stand aside. Start reacting to episodes that appear a younger person might not know what he/she’s doing, and that might very well be the case. “You can’t know something you’ve never been taught,” he said. “Before getting all high and mighty, ask yourself if maybe the kid just doesn’t know.”

“By the way, if the kids today don’t measure up, it might be your fault,” he told the group. “Maybe you parents were more interested in being your kids’ buddy than their parent. You’re the ones who hovered like helicopters patrolling the risks out in the real world and giving them trophies because everyone’s a champion for trying when in fact you knew all along that’s not the way the world works. You taught your kids that they deserve a trophy for just showing up.”

So, why blame younger coworkers for being that way? “They kind of want to be recognized for showing up, for doing their jobs just because they do them, not just when they do them exceptionally well,” Willett said. “Saying so didn’t bother you back then, so would it kill you to say so now?”

It’s as natural as liver spots for older folks to go around proclaiming how off track the course of public safety is and how the world in general will face great peril once “these kids” get their hands on things.

“Guess what?” he said. “The old-timers when you were that age made the same dang prediction. How’d things turn out?”

And, what’s with all the tattoos these days? “Younger folks don’t have a problem with it, why do you?” Willett asked. “Ask them about it; they’ll gladly explain their reasons.”

Willett gave two personal examples: A young applicant for a dispatching job had a tattoo of red lips on her wrist. Instead of saying how weird the image was, not to mention its right-out-there-in-public location, Willett said, “Tell me about that tattoo.” The young woman turned out to be a young mom, and the tattoo turned out to be an exact replica in size, color, and location of the best kiss she said she will ever receive: a spontaneous smooch from her 4-year-old daughter to brighten up one of those bad days young, single, working mothers encounter on a regular basis.

“It was a beautiful reminder and a beautiful story,” Willett said. “I couldn’t tell you (the story) today if I had just raised my eyebrow and said nothing.”

The other example involved a young staffer at his office—Public Safety Training Consultants in Redwood City, Calif. Her fiancé had stopped by to pick her up for a formal occasion but before heading out, the young man took Willett aside and asked if he knew how to knot a standard business-type necktie.

“Now, I could have made a huge deal about how had he lived to the ripe old age of 24 years having not learned how to tie a tie,” Willett said. “But I didn’t. I stopped myself and said, ‘Sure.’ I walked him into the men’s room so I could show him in a mirror ‘cause that’s how you learn to tie a Windsor. If anyone had come in they might have wondered what I was doing with my arms around this kid, but I wouldn’t have cared. I showed him how, he did it himself a couple times, and we walked out of there both proud of ourselves and with an experience that will connect us for good.”

In short, he said, recognizing differences isn’t the problem; not finding ways to fold those differences into the mix is the problem. You can’t just wave your hand and make everyone get along, but that doesn’t mean supervisors and team leaders shouldn’t try. For starters, he said, consider trying the following approaches:

•Younger workers have had parents cheering them on since they first swung and missed at T-ball. Veteran dispatchers and center supervisors can create the team they want by cheering new dispatchers on by giving them as much as they received early on.

•Accept that the younger ones will turn up for a major emergency event, but they won’t be working a lot of overtime.

•Half of the call center workforce will retire in the next five years. If you want to pass along any wisdom to posterity, better get to it now.

•Older folks are about competition; younger ones are about collaboration.

•Older folks will work their heads off and consider any lesser effort to be goofing off.

•Working class heroics don’t mean diddlysquat to younger workers. They’ve been through the Great Recession and saw with their own eyes that long hours and loyalty by their parents didn’t mean diddlysquat to their employers.

•A tattoo is no longer a sign of a poor decision.

•More money isn’t the motivator it used to be. Younger people like to work but they like to play more. Recognize that they are a lot better at keeping their lives in balance than you workaholics out there.

•Make a fuss welcoming newbies. If nothing else, print business cards with their name and the agency on it. No title is necessary. They’ll feel they are part of something. You’d be surprised how many younger dispatchers say having a business card made them “a real person.”

•Make a fuss about dispatching as a career, not just a job. Show and tell them that no other profession does more to make the world a better place. Remind them that dispatching is the golden thread that holds emergency response together.

•Sure, there’s Google and Facebook and Instagram and a thousand other way-cooler places younger I-tech-soaked people could work. But Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, and Kevin Systrom all know 9-1-1 by heart, and it’s the first number they call when things go haywire in the real world. You are part of that network, and it’s something to be proud of.