For the first time in history, four generations are working side by side in the workplace. As such, managers of multi-generational teams can find themselves navigating vastly different levels of experience, goals, life-stages, and views on workplace norms.

In this episode, we breakdown the basics of generational theory and explore how it can inform our approach to managing teams in the modern higher education workplace. Joining us in the conversation is Kevin Kropf, EVP for Enrollment at Drury University. As an enthusiastic student of generational theory, Kevin has found value in understanding generational differences so he can better manage and motivate diverse teams.

We discuss:

  • The broad characteristics attributed to members of various generations
  • Examples of how generational differences can reveal themselves in the workplace
  • The importance of getting to know team members as individuals
  • How awareness of common generational differences can lead to more empathetic and effective management.

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Transcript

Jarrett Smith:

You are listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith. Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab I’m Jarrett Smith, each episode it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in higher education and the broader world of marketing to bring you actionable insights you can use to level up your marketing and enrollment efforts. This is the fourth and final installment in our VP summer series, a podcast mini series, focusing on the unique challenges facing senior enrollment and marketing leaders. In this episode, we’ll be talking about managing teams that span multiple generations. Joining us in the conversation is Kevin Kropf, Executive Vice President for Enrollment at Drury University. And as always, we’ll be joined by Echo Delta’s own Laura Martin Fedich, who’s my co-host for this series.

During our conversation, Kevin outlines the basic ideas underlying generational theory and some of the broad characteristics researchers have found that tie generations together. Then Kevin discusses some of the ways his awareness of generational differences has influenced his own approach to managing teams. Kevin is well-read on the topic of generational theory and it made for a fun conversation on a very interesting topic. So without further ado, here’s our conversation with Kevin Kropf. Kevin, welcome to the show.

Kevin Kropf:

Thanks, Jarrett. Great to be here. Excited to talk to you today and talking about things that I talk about like generations.

Jarrett Smith:

Yeah, well, I think this is going to be a fun and super interesting conversation. Before we jump into all that I’d love it if you could just give us a little snapshot of your professional background and the work you do at Drury University.

Kevin Kropf:

Sure can. Well, my name’s Kevin Kropf and if you look at the spelling and you’re hooked on phonics you’re going to say it wrong. So I like to say if you can say 7UP, you can say Kevin Kropf, easy way to remember how to pronounce my name here.

Laura Martin Fedich:

I like that.

Kevin Kropf:

And I am literally about a month away from my 28th anniversary of working in higher education. So I basically started in the fall of ’93 after I graduated from Kenyon College as a graduate system basketball coach. And from there, I moved into the college admissions world in 1995 at Albion College. I earned my undergrad at Kenyon, my master’s at Baldwin Wallace and eventually I found myself at Drury University as the chief enrollment officer earned my doctorate there. And then in 2016 became the executive vice president for enrollment management here at Drury and currently serve as the executive vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communications. And as we’re talking about generations today I’m a gen X-er, I’m a proud gen X-er, I’m occasionally bitter. I’m not always bitter but occasionally I’m bitter as a gen X-er is [inaudible 00:02:53].

Laura Martin Fedich:

That’s great. Well, I’m also a proud gen X-er and I’m going to say I’m bitter. I was the latchkey kid. I was all those things, all those things. So good to have you here. Hey, I wonder if you’ll start out by just telling us how you became interested in study and learning about the generations, Kevin.

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah, I think I really started in 2001 at NASDAQ. Howe and Strauss, where were the keynote speakers and they were talking about these crazy kids, they call them millennials and how they are going to be the next great generation. And again, as a bitter gen X-er the bitterness came out because I thought we were a great generation. And instead they’re telling us like, no, you guys weren’t that great. You’re small as it turns out and this millennial generation is going to be great. And so I started doing some reading, I read a number of their books, some of the early books on generations, The Fourth Turning, the 13th Generation, which is what they call gen X. And then Millennials Rising was the book that was out at the time.

And really fascinated me, it helped explain some things and generational differences between me and some of my cousins. I have cousins that from tip to tip span about 25 years. So, there’s some crossover. Understanding that and recognizing that a big part of what we do in admissions and enrollment management is understanding the mindset of the students that we’re working with. What’s important to them? What are the underlying factors that drive their aspirations? What provides inspiration for them. And so having a sense of that generational knowledge I saw was just really important to what we do.

Jarrett Smith:

I’d be curious if you could just break down for our audience, maybe for the folks who are a little bit less familiar with some of this material, what are the generational characteristics that we look at? And I will say, I think there’s always a tendency as a gen X-er we look at the other generations around us and tend to go, “Oh, kids, these days or look at…” Those baby boomers can’t hold me down and all of that but I think there’s always a balance. And so understanding maybe a little bit of when we’re looking at a particular generation, what are some of the noteworthy positives? What are maybe some of the other things that come along with that?

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah, absolutely. And one of the things I think you’re going to notice when we talk about generations is that as I like to tell my kids all the time is that you should be on the same team as your grandparents, because you both have the same enemy. And so when you look at generations, we were going to talk about boomers they pair up with millennials. It’s never a perfect match, but by and large, they team up together and gen X and gen Z team up as well. And so we talk about baby boomers basically 1946 to 1960 somewhere between ’61 and ’65, depending on whose definition you like. They’re optimistic, they’re competitive, they’re workaholics, they were team-oriented, they were trying to find their purpose, the higher purpose wasn’t important to them.

And that contrasts a little bit with gen X. And gen X is a little bit more free-spirited and skeptical, independent, the latchkey kids, we had to make our own fun and figure things out. Way more flexible, go with the flow because we make things happen. And then come back to millennials who, again, start being competitive and civic minded and looking for that higher deal, really into achievement. And a lot of that is driven by their boomer parents. And then you turn it around and you get gen Z again, reflecting gen X a little bit entrepreneurial, progressive, they’re maybe less focused if you will.

Again, as they’re coming into their adulthood, they still haven’t figured some things out yet. But the other thing for them is the world’s gotten flat. And so they’re much more global minded, I think than previous generation. So while it’s not a perfect reflection you see some of the same descriptive terms in every other generation. Again, it’s that influence of parents. I gave the boomer range, I guess I should have that for the other ranges as well. Gen X then is ’65 to ’80, roughly. Millennials ’81 to 2000, millennials and then gen Z 2001 to the current date. And, maybe that’s stopping somewhere in there, we really don’t know, typically it takes about 10 years or so before we can determine when the generation might be ending.

And it’s never really a hard end if you will. I mean, we talk about cusper and people born on the cusp of generations that can go either way. And I would always say you can choose your own generation too. My wife would tell you she feels way more like a millennial sometimes because of being more of a digital native, she was born in ’75 and she’s like, “I was never a latchkey kid.” Her experience was very different than a lot of other gen X-ers. In fact, she doesn’t even like X or millennial she likes that Z-mil. That half X, half millennial, which I just always say is pew research trying to steal half of gen X anyway. We’re small and you’re trying to make a smaller by siphoning off people at the latter part of our generation. And I always like the fight to keep people on gen X, because we are so small and we don’t need to lose anybody else.

Laura Martin Fedich:

I’m sorry, Jarrett just a quick follow-up, so the parents of gen X-ers the birth rate during that period dropped? Is that why-

Kevin Kropf:

So that’s traditional population or sometimes called the silent generation. And so they were born basically during the great depression. And so they were a small group to begin with. Some of them were fighting in World War II, particularly at the end of that generation or the early part of that generation. And, so there were a few people having kids. Smaller birth rate. And the scary thing I think for enrollment professionals right now is we’re seeing birth rates at the same rate that we did during the great depression in World War II right now. We’re in, I think, seven years in a row of declining birth rates. And we’re getting below the replacement level. We’re close to dipping below 2.1, which is what they say is the replacement level.

And so when you start looking at how many students are going to graduate from college in 2039 which hopefully I’m retired by then but we’re talking about some really small graduating classes and thinking about the challenges. That’s the beauty, I think of trying looking at projections is we see what’s coming down the pipeline. When people talk about the demographic cliff coming here in 2026, we know that because we can count seventh graders. The seventh graders will eventually become seniors. And if there’s a small number of seventh graders, you can’t just inject a whole bunch of eighth graders, all of a sudden like, “Hey, come on in eighth graders.” Now, we do see growth through immigration. And depending on decisions we make as a country about immigration that could help fill some of those gaps, but for traditional college going populations that number is going to be in significant decline really after 2026, moving forward.

Jarrett Smith:

Kevin, I want to circle back to a little bit of the underlying theory behind these generational differences. I guess how can we have any confidence that these things actually do exist? What’s the idea behind that?

Kevin Kropf:

Sure. So, I mean, and wave me, you don’t have to spend too much time on Google to find people referring to Howe and Strauss’s pseudoscience. But I think though, we look for meaning, we look for trends, we look for ways of understanding people. And so generations fundamentally come about because of shared experiences and the shared mindset of the people raising them, certainly now technology, entertainment, social mores, all those things help shape a generation. And again, that’s why there’s some validity. And I say, if you want to choose your generation, you can, because your experiences in New York might be very different from somebody in Ohio or Michigan or Arkansas or California. And so sometimes some of these trends come later to places and as technology catches is up or certainly the crises.

If you will look at the finding moments of different generations, whether it’s a great depression or World War II, or people around Vietnam, great recession all of these kinds of events again proved to be that fulcrum on which generations can change. And, so as people start thinking differently about things that impacts everybody’s perspective. And so, depending on your age or when those things happen is it affecting your childhood? Is it affecting your young adulthood? Your mid career or late career? Those events that happen at the seminal moments, like when you’re in school, when you’re in the job force and working to buy your first house. Just think about the people who were trying to buy their first house when we had the housing bubble and the great recession of 2008 how is that impacting their decision-making when it comes to buying a house and thinking about the financial security of their family? What about their kids?

They’re watching their parents struggle, maybe going through a home foreclosure and again all of that just leads to these common senses. And so we talk about gen X a little bit, and when we were in our childhood as Laura talked about we were abandoned. We saw the rise of two parents working, being home alone and it’s almost like it took Macaulay Culkin, and John Houston to make the movie Home Alone to realize maybe leaving our kids at home is really not a good thing. Because I don’t look at movie and I go, look at how much fun they had, look at the level of independency he had. And he went shopping and he ordered pizza and it feels like, man, he’s acting like a true gen X-er there. But the fact that the parents forgot about him, I mean, that feels like a perfect analogy for gen X.

Jarrett Smith:

My takeaway from this Kevin, is that I should not rig up a blow torch that kicks off when I open a door and I should not be swinging paint cans off the second story.

Laura Martin Fedich:

That’s right.

Kevin Kropf:

Right. But if you were threatened and someone was trying to break into your house, maybe it’s okay if you do that. I was teasing my youngest that if we left him home alone, what things would he do to set up booby traps that around the house? And like, did you learn anything from that movie? And he says, “Well we got a BB gun, I suppose I could use and we got a dog,” and he’s like, “Ah, I don’t know if we have enough of the stuff that really caused pain and injury lying around the house that I could use to defend myself.” And I’m like… Because we’ve gotten to that place where we just have taken those things out of our houses. And are we bubble wrapping our kids now? Maybe a little bit, but I tell my daughter all the time, the reason there’s so few gen X-ers is that we didn’t have bike helmets. We rode in the back of pickup trucks. We drank out of the hoses. So only the strong survive. And those-

Laura Martin Fedich:

That’s exactly…

Kevin Kropf:

Those who weren’t strong and we lost them along the way. And so we got a smaller generation.

Laura Martin Fedich:

All right, Kevin, I am totally motivated to ask you a question about the workplace. So all of us work with people and I’m sure everybody that’s listening works with people and manages people. And of course the title of our podcast is about managing team spanning all these generations. So I’d love it if you could talk about in your experience, I guess what are some of the ways that the generational differences can reveal themselves in the workplace? And if you’ve got some stories of course love to hear that, don’t use anybody’s name though.

Kevin Kropf:

I will protect the guilty and the innocent as it relates to these stories. But when you start talking about people in the workplace I’ve had the privilege of working with upwards of probably a hundred admissions professionals and financial aid professionals in my career. And I think maybe one or two could be the older than the baby boomers and being in that silent generation maybe, they probably would rather be referred to as a boomer, but I’ve certainly worked with my share with boomers and understanding what they’ve wanted out of their careers and what they want in terms of feedback, now there’s a sense of we’ve been here a long time we know what we’re doing.

We’ve gone through a number of crises. We’ve got this experience that just allowed us to be knowledgeable. And when you think about what does that mean in terms of what they want? I mean, they feel like they’ve paid their dues. They belong where they belong. And I’ve always said you can be an admissions officer, you can work in enrollment and age doesn’t matter. But your mindset does. Because you always have to be able to connect with that high school student as well as their parents, but you’ve got to connect with the high school student. And so I think sometimes when I worked with baby boomers, it was like, reminding them, it’s like, I know you want to connect with the parents, but you got to connect with the student as well.

And when I got to Baker, I had three staff that pretty much baby boomers. And they were really good at that. They had the ability to make those connections with high school students. One, I won’t say his full name, but we call his nickname was Ricky recruiter. And he was like, Dick Clark he was the eternal teenager. I don’t know what his age was. I knew he was older than me but he had the ability to connect with students. I think that the hard part this came about of recognizing that this job still requires a lot of work, a lot of hard work and just because we’re smarter doesn’t mean we have to… We work smart doesn’t mean we don’t work hard as well.

And realizing that you just can’t fade off in the glory, you have to continue to work, to do the job. And I think after having some conversations we’re able to find that and find that right mix of hard work and smart work to really be effective at what they did. We’ve seen a lot, I’ve worked with a lot of gen X-ers as colleagues when I started as an admissions officer and then working my way through and certainly some of my directors have been gen X-ers and now I was to say about gen X maybe a fault of ours is we grew up watching Mash. And whether it was on Sunday nights, or it was the reruns, we had this Hawkeye Pierce.

I’m trying to think what the right word I want to say here, but this Hawkeye Pierce persona, that if we’re the best at what we do, we can get away with anything. Because Hawkeye and Trapper they should have been kicked out of the army. I don’t know. About once every episode at a minimum, but they’re the best surgeons in Korea. So you can’t do anything. And I think gen X-ers we grew up with that sense of hey, if we’re really good at what we do we can, we can do what we want and that’s not necessarily always true. I think you still have to play by the rules at times and that can get you in trouble if you’re not doing that.

But we came into the workforce with this entrepreneurial spirit ability, willing to be flexible and to try different things. And I think when I think about the gen X-ers that I work with, it’s recognizing that sometimes we can’t always be flexible and sometimes again, you have to play by the rules and live up to expectations that people have for you. And again, I think all of this, whether we’re talking about boomers or gen X, we get to millennials in a minute it’s, how do you show people that you value them? How are you validating their contributions and what they bring to the table? I think that’s the most important thing in managing people. And understanding about generations can help you to get to know someone maybe out of the gate, but eventually you really have to know the person and they shouldn’t be defined just by their generation.

They should be defined by who they are as a person, what they do as an employee. But when you walk into a situation generation understanding can give you a headstart. Millennials I feel like since I became a director all I’ve been doing is managing millennials and their sense of achievement and I even say entitlement sometimes, and that I’m ready to be a director of remission after two years of experience, feels like you’re getting ahead of yourself there millennial, there’s more things you need to experience before you’re ready for that. But that I think is just what was being read to me as a gen X-er, as boomers we’re holding onto leadership positions and really hesitant to let them go into the next generation. It’s like, you got to be like us, you have to wait your time, you have to pay your dues. But somehow that doesn’t ring quite as true coming from a gen X-er to a millennial.

Laura Martin Fedich:

So I’m starting to pick up that maybe you’re seeing some or maybe you’ve experienced some of these generational differences play out in the work place. Could you talk a little bit more about that? I feel like you’re going down that road and I’d love you to continue down that road.

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah. So, when I worked at Baker for one of our staff retreats, I talked about the different generations. And try to help people to see themselves and where they were and how other people might be viewing them. And then recognizing that, and this is true with campus visits and basically anything else when you’re trying to understand somebody, you can either confirm their preconceived notions, or you can refute them. And you can say, well I might be classified as a baby boomer, but look at all this technology knowledge I have. And look at how I’m leveraging Excel or CRM, or email programs. So you have the opportunity to do that. And so when I think about people I’ve managed and people that I’ve worked with yes, those generalizations that have proven true more often than not.

And so that’s led to some of these challenging conversations and to say, okay, I know this is how you want to do things, but this is what we need from you to be successful in this role. And if you can do that, if you can adapt to that you can be successful here. And I would say in the great majority of those situations, we found success in doing that. Not everyone, but in the great majority of them and trying to help people realize what their strengths are and what the strengths needed for a position are I think that’s one of our roles as leaders and mentors for staff. Is helping people recognize blind spots that they have, helping them recognize not only their strengths, but the areas that they need to continue to improve on in order to be successful.

And the one I’m thinking of in particular who after two years thought she should be ready to be a director of admission and when I said, “No,” her response was, “Well, tell me why?” And she’s like, “I’ve led the office in enrollment deposits two years in a row. I’ve taken on these opportunities to grow from a marketing perspective.” And so she was talenting these things that she had learned. But what she wasn’t recognizing is she was doing this well, basically being a Maverick and doing her own thing and not really being a team player. And that if she was going to be a director, she was going to have to work on point people together for teamwork, for more collaboration, which typically is what millennials are really good at.

We talk about superheroes growing up in gen X, we had Superman. We had Batman and Robin, but that was about the most teamwork there was, was super heroes. They all did it by themselves. And now all of a sudden we live in the era of Marvel comics and they all got a team up together. Partly it’s like, Superman didn’t need anybody else, he just took care of himself. And now we got to assemble. We got to pull the Avengers, we got to get five or six together before we can take on the bad guys. And so trying to walk her through this conversation about you have potential and you have ability, but there’s other aspects of this job besides just being a good recruiter in order to move into a leadership position. It’s how do you manage others?

And if you want everybody to be a Maverick, that can be great until you all have to come together on an event day or some other major initiative where you have to work together. And if you’re all used to doing your own thing, this isn’t going to come together. And so helping her see here’s where your growth opportunities are. And if being a director is your ultimate goal I think you have potential, but the here’s the things you’re going to have to improve upon in order to get to that place.

Jarrett Smith:

To what extent do you find it helpful to talk about these differences explicitly versus just operating in the background of your own mindset and just maybe providing clues and an additional source of way or an additional way to look at say a person or situation?

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah. I mean, I think doing the session we did at our retreat to talk about generations was a good way of doing it without having to talk about individuals. I’ve never gone into someone and from a professional standpoint, say you’re a millennial therefor blank. I think talking about the generalizations as a large group allowed everyone to draw their own conclusions without really pointing fingers at people and saying you’re a fill in the blank, therefore this.

I think again, walking into a situation, starting a job, inheriting staff trying to get to understand them, it really gets down to knowing them as a person. And while you might start off with some assumptions because of what generation they might be in you’re really doing them a short service if you don’t get to know them and truly get to understand them as a person and as an employee. I would certainly do the generational thing again in a larger group. I haven’t, it’s been nine years I think since the last time I did that.

And now that we have some gen Z’s in the workforce it may be time to do that. But again, I would start off by… This as I started with these couching that these are generalizations and not everybody in a generation is going to have experienced those things. And so now don’t just automatically pigeonhole people because these recent grads that we’ve hired are gen Z. There’s some similarities between millennials and gen Z in terms of they like the flexibility in the workforce. And this whole work from home during COVID fit their lifestyle perfectly. In fact, I think they would just say, we’d rather just work from home altogether. Now given we do an awful lot with campus visits, we can’t do campus visits from home. We tried that last year.

We ramped up our virtual tours and things like that. It’s not the same. There are some things that still have to happen in person, but I think we recognize there’s other parts of this job that we can do remotely. And my takeaway is maybe we need to be a little bit more flexible about some of the work at home stuff. Certainly from a follow-up perspective, whether you’re calling from your office on campus, or you’re calling from your office at home, you’re having the same conversations with the students. You don’t have to have a Dre pennant and a flag behind you in order to have a good conversation with the prospective student.

Now if you’re on Zoom, you might want to but you could always do that at home. You don’t have to be in the Zoom room. You can create that at home. So again, I think it goes back to using those generational characteristics as a starting point and maybe allowing yourself to try to be empathetic and to see things from their perspective. But that’s the starting point really about relationship.

Laura Martin Fedich:

Yeah. And the empathy thing, Kevin, I think is huge because as you were talking about this, I’m to paraphrase what you just said, and I might be wrong, or I might be off here but perhaps changing the workplace to suit these generational preferences the work at home, and I’m thinking to myself as a gen X-er nobody did that for me. It’s like if here is what it is and if you want a job, you’re going to show up when we tell you to show up and do what we tell you to do. So, I can see all this plays out, how conflicts can happen. I’m just having that moment where I’m like what, I would’ve liked to work from home too when I was in my ’20s, but anyway empathy is important.

Kevin Kropf:

I still remember an employee on her very first day and so I’m meeting with her for my onboarding meeting and her first question to me was, “Well, tell me about how this work-life balance thing works out in college admissions.” And I said, “Well, it’s different for everyone.” But let me tell you, when I started in 1995 we worked 8:00 to 5:00  and we had to call for two hours a night, four nights a week. And so some people did Monday through Thursday, but you could also do Sunday. I did Sundays because I was coaching basketball still, I needed to be able to go to games on Wednesdays. So I call on Sundays. And I had to take my CTV on Thursday, Friends and Seinfeld and ER and sometimes I get home just in time to see ER live. And then to watch Friends and Seinfeld afterwards, because that was the work.

I don’t know where the life was, life was on the weekends, but we worked a lot on Saturdays too. And I remind staff now, like we don’t make people call four nights a week anymore in part, because people don’t answer the phone the way they used to. You want to talk about generational differences, you think before you’d call people and they weren’t home. So you talked to their parents. So now they have the phone in their pocket and they don’t answer it. Because they don’t know. They don’t have a good reason to talk to you. They’re not taking the call. And so phony is not nearly as effective as it once was. So to make people do phone calling, just because, well, that’s what I did when I was a young admissions officer just seems a little short-sighted.

Now we still talk about that after hours follow-up but oftentimes it could be text messaging, could be some email conversations, and we still call particularly our admitted students and beyond. But that’s changed. And I look at again, a generational thing for X-ers, because we were latchkey kids because we had to create our own fun when we got to the workplace, we wanted to be left alone, tell me what I need to do, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to find out how to do it. And I think that is reflective of how we operated. And we bristled at the idea of being micromanaged and having someone over our shoulders. But then you say, get into millennials and what were they known for? Well, they had the parents who were what the helicopter parents? They were hovering over them.

And so they grew up with people looking over their shoulder and maybe pointing out when they needed to do things differently. But now with gen Z, it’s almost like we don’t talk about helicopter parents anymore, we talk about lawnmower parents or snowplow parents, that they are making things easy for them. They’re filling out their application for them. Every year we catch, I don’t know, a dozen or so applications where parents put their name in, instead of their child’s name in, and then still hit submit. And then they’re like, “Hey, I need to log back into my application. I got to edit some things. And the thing they edit, it’s the name.” We get to see what the changes are. And so does that mean for employees that they need more hand-holding and that they need to be told what to do? And I think sometimes the answer is yes.

And again, that’s not everybody. But I was reading an article about generations earlier this week and I think the opening quote was about how gen Z’s, want more check-ins from their supervisors. That it used to be, if your boss needed to talk to you were in trouble, and now they’re like, they want regular check-ins because they want to be told that they’re doing a good job, that they’re important, that they’re valued, and they want more consistent feedback. But I also think that there’s times where it’s like, am I doing this right means I have to explain to you again, why you need to do what you need to do instead of just figuring it out, making it work.

Jarrett Smith:

If this conversation is resonating with someone and they’re curious to learn more about this topic, where would you recommend someone start?

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah. So, I mean, there’s plenty of books out there and I mentioned Howe and Strauss is where I started and I got a big stack of books over here. Millennial Rising was really the Bible, as it relates to getting to know the millennials and as a gen X-er I always like X Saves The World by Jeff Gordinier. If you’re an X-er, you’re going to love it. If you’re not an X-er, you’re probably going to get mad and throw the book across the room. But in terms of understanding students today, I think Jean Twenge and her book IGen is a great primer on that. I mean, there’s some really scary stuff and not surprisingly, she spoke at NASDAQ a couple of years ago, and when you see the impact that basically the iPhone has had on adulting and kids engaging in adult-like activities the decline in that, but also the rise of depression in our youth. I mean, it’s some scary statistics that are out there.

Couple of folks, I think are in Michigan, wrote the book Gen Z Goes To College. Another good book about this generation that’s emerging now. So a lot of good resources out there. And then the one I read and it’s not a book it’s more of an article that was written by MZ. It’s talking about the demographic drought, and this is looking at what’s happening, what’s going to happen when this population declines in the workplace and who’s going to fill jobs? And I almost feel like coming out of this pandemic when it’s really hard to hire employees right now we will have hired five new admissions counselors and all of a sudden out of six positions in our office. We’re hiring two financial aid officers out of five. We’ve seen all this turnover and the job markets, it’s tough to find good employees right now. And so the impact that’s having on are we going to have to hire someone that maybe was below our standards normally? I certainly hope not. We’re taking our time.

But we knew we had four positions open as early as March, and here we are nearing the end of July, and we’ve only filled two of them. I worry about demographics here a little bit, not just from where students come from but where the employees come from. Ahead of this podcast was looking at a primer that Purdue Global did. I was really surprised that I found this on Purdue Global’s website, but they had a neat primer about differences of the generations. And they even talk about generational differences in the workplace. And they created mini personas of each of the generations to try to give a better explanation. And I was talking about this article with a colleague of mine in the office earlier this morning and her point to me is, so what you’re telling me is that boomers wore a suit to work or a coat and tie and then gen X came along and said, “We don’t need a jacket. We’re just going to wear a shirt and tie.” Millennials are like, “We’re going to wear a t-shirt with a button down, unbuttoned,” and then gen Z want to wear a t-shirt to work. And I said, “Well, we’re talking about males here.That’s about the wardrobe changes that we’ve seen here.”

And we’ve gone from coat and tie down to t-shirt and it made me chuckle and I’m like, okay, that’s not exactly the point I was trying to get across but your point is taken.  As we’ve looked at workplace attire now we’re casual Fridays here and we normally wear red, on Fridays we wear red. That’s what we say at jury. But I don’t really have a great red button down and I wore blue today. I didn’t have enough red behind me. I didn’t want my body to disappear in all of that red, but when I first started, we were a coat and tie practically every day. And if it was dressed down at all, it was like, okay, we’re not wearing jackets today. Because that was the expectation, that was being set by our boomer bosses when we first started, this is the expectation.

Laura Martin Fedich:

Yeah. When I started, it was dresses and skirts for women and you had to have hoes on there’s no bare legs. I guess that dates me a fair amount, but I was working in the deep south at the time, that was not a fun wardrobe but it’s what we did. And I have to say I prefer it now.

Kevin Kropf:

Yes. And you know what? I’m fine not wearing a tie every now and then. We had a trustee, our finance committee met yesterday and I was there and had to talk about numbers so I did wear a tie yesterday. I was the only person in the room, in person or virtually who had a tie on, but I wasn’t going to be the only person without a tie. And given that we were meeting with some trustees, some of them were at work. I was like, I’m wearing a tie. But that reminds me, I did a college fair a few years ago in Blue Springs, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City. And it got to be next near the end of the fair. And I was looking around and it was just looking at what the attire was of the different admissions officers and the school next to me was Benedictine, which was a big rival of Baker. We didn’t really like each other a lot when we play each other in sports, but I’ve gotten to know their dean of admissions pretty well. And so we packed up Pete and I did at the end, and I said, “Pete, does your staff ever…” And he goes, “Ask me if they can wear polo shirts to college fairs?”

And I said, “How did you know that’s what I was going to say?” He says, “Because I was looking around the room too. And you and I are the only people here in suits.” Both of us had suits on. There were two other gentlemen that had ties on, there were a couple more that had jackets on but no ties, but no one else had a jacket and a tie on. And then the attire for women range from khaki slacks and a polo shirt to, I’d say more business focused tires and even a couple of business suits, I would say where they had jackets or cardigans. But we were just saying, I just don’t feel comfortable saying, go work a college fair in a polo shirt. And I’ve had staff then and even till today say, “Well, I just don’t think I’m relatable to a high school student if I have a suit coat on. If I had a polo shirt on, I think that’d be a lot more relatable.”

And I’ve really scoffed that. But to be honest, coming out of the pandemic and looking at the casualness of the people we’ve interviewed for jobs have been incredibly casual this summer. They’re attire I’d be like, “There’s no way I would show up for a job interview…” I mean, we had someone who came with, it’s a button-down shirt but no tie and his pants weren’t pressed and in my mind, I’m like, if I went for a job interview, I am focused on every detail I can in terms of my appearance. I would argue that some of the women when they’ve interviewed have come in a really nice t-shirt I wouldn’t even call it a blouse. And so again, we look at things change, I’m not sure I’m ready to go to the polo shirt yet at a college fair but maybe it’d be okay if you didn’t have a jacket, maybe certain tie for the guys. But I do feel we have to talk about professional tire again, because we had a whole year without travel. And so let’s talk about what you want to look like when you go on the road.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, Kevin, one thing that I pick up from you is, I mean, obviously as you have your own opinions on certain topics but at the same time, you seem to be trying to strike a balance with, trying to exercise a measure of self-awareness. I heard you say earlier I may feel this way because this is how I came up. That may be my natural approach to say advancement and career. And that’s my working assumption because that’s the way it was for me. But maybe that’s not necessarily the way I need to be thinking about it now. And of course there are no clear answers on any of this. It’s not like someone’s going to weigh in and say polos or no polos. There’s a healthy amount of sort of judgment calls and what’s right for your institution and the market you’re going after and all that. But I did want to point out, I feel like throughout this conversation, you’ve tempered this with a lot of self-awareness in that. I would pick up on as one of those healthy guard rails to put around this conversation and as you’re taking this knowledge on generations and even reflecting on your own self and how you’re operating as a manager.

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah. I think that’s a really important point. And because again, trying to be aware of what your blind spots are and what for lack of a better term prejudices you might have in terms of things, it is important because ultimately managing people is about relationships and to not be aware of those potential blind spots or just biases that you might have put you in a position where you might not be able to fulfill that relationship in a way that it needs to be. And you may not have the influence on someone that you could. And so I try not to hold things against people too much when they do things wrong or don’t meet expectations and I really learned a great lesson in my doctoral program. I had to interview a dean of students, and I asked her how has your perspective on what you do changed from when you start off as a professional tilt to today?

And she says, “Well, when I first started, I always focused it on the what. What did the student do wrong? And what’s the punishment that meets that?” And she was like, “I’ve gotten to the point where, I’m not always happy with what the what is but I need to know the why. Because if I can’t change the underlying factors that caused the student to engage in inappropriate behavior, I can’t change them. And I’m an educator. I work in higher education. So I need to understand why. Can I get to that root cause?”

And that really resonated with me when it comes to managing people. It’s like, so why did you think it was okay to do whatever? Did you feel empowered that you could do whatever you wanted? That someone who trained you say, “Hey, here’s how we do things here and they just didn’t train you right? And try to understand the why so that you can say, “Well, here’s why I’m asking you to do it this way. And I understand that philosophical basis. I think allows for better dialogue, I think it allows for opportunities for growth and for that relationship to grow. Because as I said, regardless of your generation, you want validation, you want to be told that the job you’re doing is making a difference and not just maybe making a difference for the students you interact with but making a difference for your office, for the bigger goals in your office.

And so trying to find that affinity with staff. And so one of the questions I ask, everybody I interview are tell me about the three B’s in life, a book I should read, a band I should listen to and a beautiful place I need to see. And so when I ask that question and I get students and they start giving me answers, like this one student about a month ago said, “Well, I can’t give you one band, but I’m going to give you the three J’s. Jimi, as in Jimi Hendrix, JNS, as in Jimmy, Janice Joplin, and then Jim, as in Jim Morrison of the Doors, and I’m thinking what a great education your parents provided you to equip you with that great music of the late ’60s, early ’70s. But when I asked that of employees, I’m looking for affinity. And so when they say a book and it’s something that I’ve read or something that I’m curious about or something that I want to read after they get done talking about it. Now that’s something that we can talk about. Something we can have in common.

The same way with bands when the high school students tell me the name of bands, I go look it up on Spotify. And sometimes these bands have five songs and I’ve never heard of any of them. And I have a 15 year old daughter and I’ll ask her, she’s like, “Oh yeah I play that all the time. I watched the video on YouTube all the time.” And it’s like, well would you ever go buy? And then I catch myself. Well, you can buy records again, because records are cool again. You can buy records but you don’t really buy CDs anymore. You don’t buy cassettes for certain. Sometimes you just buy a song on Apple Music. And she was like, “Oh yeah, I bought it on Apple Music.” And so again, it’s a little harder sometimes to find affinity there. But as I tell my admissions counselors here, you always need to find those affinities. Because if you find something you have in common and something that you can talk about, you get to build a relationship. And so if that’s true for working with students, that’s true for working with employees. And so let’s keep finding those affinities because we can get to know each other better if we do that.

Jarrett Smith:

Absolutely. Well, I think that is an excellent note to end on. Kevin, if someone is interested to take this conversation further, maybe would like to connect with you, do you have any good ways to do that, that you might suggest?

Kevin Kropf:

Yeah. So I’m on Twitter, I’m @LordKevin. That has everything to do with me being a Kenyon College Lord and not any type of title that I might have from any English ancestry or anything from Harry Potter of being more Voldemort. No, it’s Kenyon College Lord. So Lord Kevin seemed like a good handle to on Twitter. Certainly I’m always open to emails and it’s kevin.kropf. That’s K-R-O-P-F@hotmail.com. Always happy to talk with folks there. And reaching me at Drury is pretty easy to email, you can find online my phone number as well. So I’m happy to talk with folks. If other people out there are struggling with millennials and gen Z who are… They’re flexible work natives, I read that the other day and that really struck a chord with me. We talk about digital natives. Now we’re dealing with flexible work natives. I think there’s great conversations to be had. But I’m always going to take it back to don’t just pigeon hole someone because of generation get to know them, build that relationship figure out what they need to be valued and for them to keep being a valuable contributor to what you’re doing in your place of work.

Jarrett Smith:

Well, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you. Super interesting conversation. Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Kevin Kropf:

Thanks Jarrett. Thanks, Laura. This has been fun.

Jarrett Smith:

The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service enrollment marketing agency for colleges and universities of all sizes. To see some of the work we’ve done and how we’ve helped schools, just like yours, visit echodelta.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. And as always, if you have a comment question, suggestion or episode idea, feel free to drop us a line at podcast@echodelta.com.