A new pilot project at SAP brought together cross-generation mentoring pairs and challenged them to question assumptions. Here’s what they discovered.

More than 80 colleagues from the Products & Innovation board area at SAP recently signed up to the pilot version of a cross-generation mentoring program to find out how the other generation ticks. The program is one of many initiatives across the company to “Celebrate All Generations at SAP.”

During a three-month pilot phase from November 2017 to February 2018, participants from Bangalore, Brazil, Canada, Germany, and the United States took time out to step back and challenge stereotypes.

“In the everyday business context, you don’t really have the time to talk to younger people about their generation,” explains Andreas Hoffmann, a program manager in SAP Knowledge & Education and member of generation X, or those born between 1964 and 1978. “That’s why I registered to take part in the mentoring program.”

Most of the participants came with certain assumptions about the younger and older generations, but never really had the opportunity to engage with the topic.

“It is vital to our product development and our processes that we understand how the younger generation sees things and that we know what their expectations are,” explains Sundar LN, vice president and COO, Globalization Services.

Annika Boldt, an associate developer in Industry & Custom Development, is fairly new to SAP. She signed up for the program in anticipation of a lively exchange. Her aim was to meet someone from another development team and identify the similarities and differences between them — at work and beyond: “I joined the program because I haven’t worked at SAP for very long and I wanted to meet people from different projects and with different jobs. I was also curious about how colleagues from other generations prepare for meetings and manage their time.”

Generational Stereotypes

Before the pilot program started, participants were able to visit a Cross-Generation Intelligence group and the Cross-Generation Mentoring Program group on SAP Jam to reflect and form an opinion on generation-related stereotypes.

Are generation X colleagues really the way they are always portrayed? Are they unfazed by authority? Is work-life balance important to them? And do they really have high standards of work? Are Generation Z colleagues, those born after 1995, really masters of multitasking who can work on five things at once? Are they more motivated by change than colleagues from other generations?

Participant Feedback

After three months, the participants were asked again for their feedback by Simone Keppler, who headed up the program. When asked what their main takeaway from the program was, many answered that they were actually not that different after all. Even that well-known stereotype about younger employees using social media more than colleagues from other generations was found to be untrue at SAP.

All the generations share similar values and enjoy working in diverse teams. Often, they have the same work-life balance requirements: On one occasion, an employee from the Baby Boomer generation, those born between 1946 and 1964, encouraged a generation Y colleague, those born between 1979 and 1994, to do more to offset their stress levels.

“These were some of the key insights provided by participants,” explains Tanja Kaufmann, global lead for Diversity & Inclusion in the Products & Innovation board area at SAP.

In her feedback, Elisabeth Muchowski, a product manager in product management for SAP S/4HANA Cloud, said: “I was really surprised by how valuable my experience was for a new employee. It showed me that there’s a lot I can pass on. I really appreciate SAP giving us such a rewarding opportunity.”

As an associate developer in the SAP HANA Customer Scenario Testing team, Felix Schabernack is at the start of his SAP career: “My mentor taught me so much about company history and product development. The introductory sessions can’t give you that kind of information. Our conversations helped me understand why our products came to be developed the way they were, and showed me product development in a new light.”

“We are all shaped by our personality, by the era we grew up in, and by our current life phase. These layers enable us to find common ground with people of all ages,” explains Huerol Enseli, a senior user assistance developer in Financial Services.

Expanding the Program

A survey revealed that 87 percent of the participants would sign up for another cross-generation mentoring program or recommend such a program to someone else. Significant interest also came from Products & Innovation management. Christoph Behrendt, executive vice president and head of Industry and Customer Development for Products & Innoation, had lunch with two mentoring pairs to hear their reaction to the program. He was impressed by what they told him, and could see that the pairs had bonded really well. He also offered to make time for a work-shadowing day himself.

One participant anonymously summarized her experience as follows: “This program is a huge step toward finally breaking down stereotypes. I think every employee should be able to take part in such a mentoring program to meet and learn from older or younger people.”

Other board areas at SAP are planning to offering cross-generation mentoring programs in the future, and the Products & Innovation board area has recently launched a second program.

10 Tips to Boost Cross-Generation Collaboration

For managers:

  1. Foster a culture of innovation: Assign new and complex tasks to cross-generational teams.
  2. Initiate and promote mentoring relationships: Encourage the people in your team to learn from each other.
  3. Enable colleagues to get to know each other: Consider rotating physical workplaces or use a modern work space concept.
  4. Be aware of the different needs of young and mature colleagues.
  5. Encourage open, appreciative communication in your team meetings.

For team members:

  1. Make a special effort to network with colleagues who are younger or older than you.
  2. Try pair programming/pair work: Identify suitable tasks for cross-generational tandems.
  3. Do regular warm-ups: Use a daily scrum for team-building exercises on a regular basis.
  4. Reserve time for exchange: Let younger or older colleagues share their expertise in team meetings.
  5. Be aware of the needs of colleagues who are in different life phases than your own.