A Case for Wisdom in the Workplace.

May 16, 2021

A Case for Wisdom in the Workplace.

May 29, 2023

When Dan Steffey, 78, recently went to his boss, Eric Paine, 41, to say that he wanted to retire, Paine didn’t hesitate to politely decline his request. Five years earlier, Paine, CEO of rapidly-growing Community Development Partners (CDP), a mission-driven affordable housing development organization, had hired Steffey, a grizzled veteran of affordable housing in Oregon, to help them expand into the Pacific Northwest.

Paine and Steffey joined intergenerational forces and have since succeeded beyond their wildest expectations.

Paine wanted to expand CDP’s impact from Southern California into Portland and greater Oregon, and wanted someone who had long experience there, local knowledge, and who could offer mentorship and wisdom, to help shape the future of his career and his company. Steffey helped Paine create partnerships with nonprofit entities immersed in communities of color - like the Native American Youth and Family Center and Hacienda CDC - to create highly culturally diverse communities in affordable housing, while providing opportunities for capacity building for the organizations.

Additionally, Steffey began to vision a model for intergenerational housing, which he calls Communities For All Ages (CFAA). The idea grew out of his work with Bridge Meadows in Portland, an organization that creates multigenerational communities to support children formerly in foster care, and EngAGE, an organization that transforms affordable senior, family and multigenerational apartment communities into vibrant centers of learning, wellness and creativity. The CFAA model is now being utilized in five CDP communities currently in/under development, totaling $318 million and more than 1,000 households of people from three generations.

Given their success together, it is understandable that Paine would want to keep Steffey from going gently into that good night, so he made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He offered Steffey the position of Wisdom Officer for CDP, relieving him of the daily grind of real estate project work so Steffey could focus on what Paine really needed from him – wisdom, experience, mentorship, vision and creativity.

Wisdom in the workplace is not a new idea, but one that has significantly waned in recent decades due to ageist ideas and competition between generations of workers. The benefits, however, as the story of Paine and Steffey illustrates, far outweigh the disadvantages.

For the first time, we have five generations present in the workplace. From the Traditionalists born before 1945, all the way up until Gen Z, this generational diversity and a multigenerational workforce can be a distinct advantage for companies today. As Paine and the leaders of Airbnb realized when they hired Chip Conley, a diverse range of ideas and knowledge across generations can bring competitive advantages to companies, as do other types of diversity of experience and ideas.

Wisdom in the workplace does not just mean keeping older workers around to impart lessons on their younger colleagues. Wisdom exists in people of all ages, but combined with experience and life lessons, vision and execution can result in a rare synergy between profit and purpose at work, something that benefits people of all ages to understand why we get up in the morning to do our work in the first place.

It is not lost on Paine and Steffey that their intergenerational relationship mirrors the CFAA communities (Communities For All Ages) they will create together at CDP. Steffey admires Paine’s willingness to have the process of creating the model be iterative, building and improving it as they go, not a common quality in a real estate developer, where highly planned control of the project and product rules the roost. Paine, in delaying Steffey’s retirement, gets what he wants and needs from his colleagues’ decades of experience – lay of the land, knowledge of the environment and the mythology of the places where they build. At the end of the day, he wants wisdom in his workplace.

Tim Carpenter, Encore Public Voices Fellow, is the CEO and Founder of EngAGE, a model for creating community and purpose in affordable housing.

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