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Sandwich Leadership

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You've probably heard of the sandwich generation. It consists of those of us who are responsible for the care of two generations at the same time. We're navigating the changing relationships and increasing dependence of our aging parents while raising our children. I'm not sure there's anything more stressful, and yet more important, in familial relationships.

There is a stark difference in the needs of the two generations, as well as the challenge of giving both the time they need to feel safe and connected. Consider the irony of driving. While my young adults were learning to drive and gaining their long-anticipated independence, I was trying to find the best way to have the "it may be time to give up the car keys and the checkbook" discussion with my struggling mother. One generation was experiencing the power and elation of freedom, while the other was both frightened and angry to lose the sense of independence that she'd enjoyed since receiving that first driver's license.

The discussions with both sides get more emotional and poignant as the issues escalate. As parents we are responsible for teaching our children how to navigate the world on their own and make good decisions as they enter adulthood. My youngest child was recently delivered to Connecticut for her first year at college, and we both knew it would be a major life transition. She's learning to figure out what she wants and how to communicate her needs to her well-intentioned but occasionally clueless mother. Yes, I'm the clueless one. How could I possibly forget that she has a strong mind and vision of her own future that needs to be honored? Let's just call that temporary mom-blindness.

At the same time that we're navigating new and exciting boundaries with my daughter and her two older brothers, my husband and I are both trying to find a way to sensitively approach the inevitable decline of our parents. Advocacy with their respective health care providers is new territory. In my situation, it became necessary to take on financial responsibility, and that's difficult terrain to maneuver. Taking care of a parent's finances is a level of trust and knowledge that I sometime wish I didn't have. On the other hand, I'm glad that my mother trusts me to take care of her as she can no longer capably do these things for herself.

This made me think about generations in the workplace and sandwich leadership. With the oldest workers and the youngest workers, who are often on two completely opposite career trajectories because of their stages in life, there needs to be both acknowledgement of the differences and clarity of expectations. Those who have retirement in sight often look at their work differently than those who are starting to experience success and develop greater ambitions. As a leader, it can be a challenge to encourage and inspire best efforts from such divergent groups.

Newer employees to the workforce may have enviable technical skills, but they can also be lacking in experience and maturity. They often want to change the world, now, and receive a big trophy for doing so. They may not respect the reasons for existing processes. On the other hand, well-experienced employees have seen more change and often, professional upheaval, over their work years than they'd care to admit. They've often seen failed initiatives and unimpressive leaders, and may have become jaded to the newest leadership trends and jargon. In some workplaces, there are more of them waiting out their retirement dates and taking up space than there are those who remain engaged and excited about their contributions up until their last work day.

What's a good leader to do in the middle of this generational sandwich? Work still needs to be done, and people need to be encouraged and valued. Organizational emphasis on support and achievement can help. Those experienced workers who are valued for what they know and what they have for institutional knowledge are more likely to continue to contribute and not attempt to coast all the way to their gold watch ceremony. Younger workers who are expected to treat all of their coworkers with respect and to be positive and team-focused can learn a great deal from their more seasoned counterparts and find a way to share their impressive technical skills at the same time.

While encouraging these positive individual and team behaviors, the engaged leader will still be responsible for coaching and feedback. The type of leadership that I don't recommend is the positive-negative-positive sandwich approach to feedback. This is the method where difficult or negative feedback is 'sandwiched' between two or more pieces of positive feedback. It may make the feedback easier to deliver in the mind of the leader who is trying to reduce discomfort; however, the direct approach is a better choice. Positive feedback should be delivered regularly and sincerely, each time it is warranted, not just to soften the blow of a difficult message. The subordinate who is subject to the positive-negative-positive approach likely won't trust that the positives are authentic, and may be confused at the lack of clarity in delivery of the message.

The other type of sandwich leadership is the pull between leading up, down, and across. As leaders, we need to do each of these well. When you answer to your board of directors and CEO, it is important to clearly understand your role, demonstrate loyalty, and help them see your vision of the future that involves your organization's success. Leading across, with your peers, means to be sure that they feel genuinely heard and valued, encouraging their growth and offering your help, and asking them to help you as you develop into a top-notch team. Leading subordinates may be the more traditional type of leadership, but it is an art to inspire, encourage, and genuinely want success for others. They need to know their roles, that you appreciate their contributions, and that you think they have potential to do great things.

Now you know the importance of sandwiches in the workplace. Enjoy your lunch.

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

4.75 (4)


Deb Sparrow
Maine State Credit Union
Senior Vice President/CLO

Deb is Senior Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at Maine State Credit Union, the largest credit union in Maine. She directs the lending and collections functions and has served in a senior leadership role at the credit union for over 18 years. She has more than 27 years of experience in all types of lending. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's Executive Leadership series.



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