CONVERSATION WITH SMILEY POSWOLSKY
by Jamison Stoike

Pulse: How did you come to be an expert on leading the next generation of workers and finding meaning in the workplace?
SMILEY POSWOLSKY: In 2012, I was stuck in a job that on paper was perfect—I had an important job in the U.S. government; a great salary, healthcare and job security. But the truth is I was deeply unhappy and unfulfilled. This led to a very brutal quarter-life crisis where I compared myself to my friends on Face-book and worried that I’d forever be stuck in a career that wasn’t the right fit. I started writing about my quarter-life crisis and interviewing other millennials going through the exact same thing I was facing. My self-published book about millennials searching for meaningful work sold nearly 10,000 copies and led to a book deal with Penguin Random House. Turns out: I wasn’t alone, and a whole generation was seeking answers for how to find meaningful work in an era of rapid change.

P: That book is called The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, and in it you discuss how millennials aren’t the “me” generation. In your mind, what defines them?
S: Millennials currently make up more than half of the workforce and in the next 10 years, millennials will make up as much as 75 percent of the workforce. Based on my research, stereotypes about entitled, lazy and selfish millennials couldn’t be farther from the truth. Millennials want to work—and despite being shackled by debt, a recession and the jobs crisis, they aren’t motivated by money. Rather they’re motivated by meaning—they’re driven to make the world more compas-sionate, innovative and sustainable. We aren’t the “me, me, me” generation. We are the purpose generation. Fifty percent of millennials would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, [and] 90 percent want to use their skills for good. According to Deloitte’s millennial survey, 75 percent of millennials say the business world is getting it wrong—that businesses are too focused on their own agendas, rather than on improving society.

P: What do you mean when you write that a career is made of “lily pads,” rather than being a traditional “career ladder.”
S: The average millennial will have at least 15-20 differ-ent jobs in their lifetime. The traditional career ladder, where someone spends decades in the same job, is no longer available for most workers. The average job tenure for a 20-24 year-old is just over one year; for 25-35 year-olds, [it] is 2-3 years, and the average job tenure for all workers is just over four years. In other words, we need to think of our careers like a pond of lily pads, spread out in all directions, and each lily pad is an opportunity to live your purpose and gain experience, opportunity, skills and connections that will help you grow in your career.

P: And how can a small business without a traditional career ladder, like a spa, use this to appeal to their advantage?
S: Spas can be an incredible opportu-nity for young workers to experience first-hand the power of making an im-pact on someone’s life through human connection and the magic created when a team works together. Spas are like start-ups; the perfect growth opportunity to learn new skills, go outside your comfort zone, try new things and gain experience managing and working with people; crucial human capital tools that young workers will need to succeed in the future of work.

P: Many spa workers enter the spa in-dustry as a second career later in life. What advice do you have to make spa appealing to those seeking a ca-reer change?
S: The employer is the new educator. Workplaces that focus on training and development see high increases in performance and retention. The spa industry is the perfect environment for those seeking a career change later in life because it’s often an op-portunity to learn a hands-on, practi-cal skill, such as massage therapy or yoga teacher training. Moreover, it’s an environment where you’re working with people every single day. Human connection is ever more important in a world that’s becoming more dom-inated by technology and our devices every single day. People are starving for that human connection and interpersonal interactions that you can get from working in the spa industry.

P: How can spa professionals maintain meaning in their work as they transition from hands-on skilled labor positions to managerial positions?
S: One of the main things young talent are lacking in their toolkit is interpersonal skills. This is usually because many young adults spend 10 hours a day looking at their phone and don’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation anymore. Spa professionals have the unique ability to become experts at working with people every single day. I like to say that “HR is the new life coach.” Professionals in managerial positions get to set the tone and culture of their spa and their team, and create an environment where everyone can show up and do their best work. They get to be stew-ards of culture, and make sure every-one on their team feels safe to be vulnerable and take risks, which has been shown to be the main indicator of high-performing teams.

P: COVID-19 has had a massive im-pact on the spa industry, with the vast majority of spas worldwide hav-ing laid off or furloughed employees for months as a result. As they re-open and rehire their teams, how can they best support the needs of younger employees during this chal-lenging time?
S: The spa industry knows how impor-tant it is to take employee wellness seriously. Employee burnout was already on the rise before COVID-19, and things have only gotten worse—especially for younger employees, who are facing ris-ing rates of stress, anxiety and even de-pression at work. The World Health Organization (WHO) has even redefined burnout as a ‘syndrome’ linked to chronic stress at work. Understand that younger employees will need extra support during this time. Be as flexible as possible when re-opening and understanding that your workers may be bal-ancing the toll of pandemic stress, career uncertainty, financial hardship, as well taking care of family members and caring for loved ones who are sick—all while trying to show up to work on time. Be transparent. Create time for open and honest communica-tion and allow people to share what they’re going through and what they need from their employer. If possible, provide access to mental health sup-port and resources. When in doubt: treat your employees like your own family members.

P: What long-term impact do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will have on the current and future work-force?
S: The economic impact on the work-force cannot be understated and many middle- and working-class families will be hurting for years to come because of the pandemic. So many people have lost income and opportunity due to COVID-19, and it will take years for our economy to fully recover. There will be an entire generation of workers that has to juggle two or three part-time jobs to get by since there won’t be enough full-time positions to go around—this was already the case for many people before the pandemic—and now will be the reality for more people. Hopefully, we can come together to create a stronger government safety net for those who need financial security, worker protections and healthcare the most. Everyone has been saying that the office is dead and teams will be working remotely forever. I actually predict the opposite. I think employees are starving for that human connection, that physical touch, and that sense of being in the room with other people that was common place before COVID-19. Sure, remote work has become more popular and many companies will move to a hybrid model, where you can work from home several days a week and be in the office once or twice a week. But the long-term impact will be that weremember just how important other people are to our own happiness and fulfillment. I think this bodes well for the spa industry. Once it is safe to do so, people will be yearning to gather together in-person, and the health and wellness industries will be stronger than ever.

P: Millennials are now spa leaders, and Gen Z is entering the spa work-force en masse. How can spa directors make the workplace more meaningful for Gen Z?
S: Gen-Z is the most diverse generation in history, and they are expecting the places they work to reflect that diversity. Spa directors can make the workplace more meaningful by making spas become truly diverse and inclusive spaces. Gen-Z is on the forefront of a lot of critical social movements of our time, like women’s empowerment, racial justice and climate action, and I see spas becoming part of that effort to make sure the massive health and wellness industry becomes a place where people of all genders, races and backgrounds feel safe and have a leadership role, as well as places where sustainability and environmental impact matter.

P: Lastly, I’d like to ask two questions about multigenerational teams. How much does what employees want—purpose versus profit, flexibility versus stability, etc.—vary across generations?
S: While there are surely slight differences in terms of what different generations want in the workplace, IBM did a fascinating study several years ago that found that what every employee wants, regardless of age, is similar. The study found that we all want to make apositive impact, solve social and environmental challenges, work with a diverse group of people, work for a company that’s respected in their industry, do work we are passionate about and become an expert in our field. The truth is that we’re not all that different. I advise multigenerational teams to focus on what brings us together, not what divides us. Everyone wants personal meaning and purpose at work. If we can figure out a way to provide personal purpose, where everyone has a sense of how their role aligns with the greater team’s purpose, everyone wins.

P: Do you have any tips or practical exercises for increasing communication between a spa’s oldest employ-ees, such as baby boomers and Gen X, and its youngest employees?
S: I also recommend fostering intergenerational collaboration through co-leadership. By co-leadership I mean having an older employee with more spa industry experience, like a baby boomer, co-lead a project, alongside someone who is much younger, like a Gen-Zer. That way, the Gen-Zer is going to learn so much from the baby boomer with a lot of skills and experi-ence. Moreover, the baby boomer will be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking from the younger employee. They’ll gain more respect for each other, build trust and realize that they’re stronger when working together. Mentorship and reverse mentorship programs can also be a great way to foster more dialogue across generations. Even the simple habit of having weekly ‘Lunch and Learns’ for your team, where different employees share something they know or something they want to talk about, will help foster multigenerational communication and connection among your employees.