Exchange Matters / September 29, 2020

A Multigenerational Dialogue

By Olivia Chavez and Sherry Lee Mueller, Public Diplomacy Council

Editor’s note: This is an edited dialogue between Public Diplomacy Council (PDC) President Sherry Lee Mueller and PDC Fellow Olivia Chavez on multigenerational leadership, the importance of mentors, and the PDC Rising Professionals membership category. 

Sherry (left) and Olivia with their poster on “Youth Engagement: Harnessing the Power of Intergenerational Leadership” at the 2020 Global Ties U.S. National Meeting. Credit: Public Diplomacy Council

Olivia: One of the first things I learned about Sherry Mueller was that she had co-authored the book: Working World — Careers in International Education, Exchange, and Development with colleague Mark Overmann. The book is an intergenerational dialogue about making wise career choices. As a Peace Corps Volunteer who was just one month away from completing a 2-year service and had no set direction on what was next, the book was a godsend.

The book explores the notions that pursuing a career is a continuous journey, that mentors can come from all spheres of life, and that in strengthening our ability to cooperate across generations we also strengthen our workplaces. Sherry, can you share more about what you call “multigenerational leadership” and why it is important?

Sherry: Olivia, I will confess that when I first invited Mark to coauthor the book in 2007, my main motive was keeping him at Global Ties U.S. (then NCIV) where I was serving as president. It was only when we started working together at my dining room table with ideas ricocheting around that I began to appreciate the rich result of juxtaposing our two perspectives. Our collaboration produced a book that was so much better than any book either of us could have authored alone. It was this firsthand experience, coupled with roles at the helm and on the boards of several organizations, which led me to become an avid proponent of what I like to call “multigenerational” leadership.

Organizational leaders often talk about the need to attract younger members. That is really an existential imperative. However, that is only the first part of a two-part challenge. The second part and real art of leadership is engaging members from each generation and inspiring them to work together for the mission of the organization. We can only effectively work toward PDC’s mission of “encouraging excellence in professional practice, academic study, and advocacy for public diplomacy” by tapping the talents and melding the experiences of a diverse array of members. One aspect of that diversity is age. When I was elected PDC president and began to gain a better understanding of the players and programs, I knew one of my top priorities would be to engage younger members. We spoke about that during your first interview. I knew the PDC Graduate Fellow would be key both as an adviser and implementer. That has proved to be the case. You shaped our outreach in a fundamental way.

Olivia: I saw it as an unusual opportunity to help create change. Sherry and I both place a strong emphasis on the importance of listening. As we played with ideas for attracting young professionals to the Public Diplomacy Council we brought together a number of voices that would help us develop what came to be called our Rising Professionals membership category for younger colleagues 35 and under. Through a series of focus groups and conversations with young professionals and our board, we generated several concrete suggestions about involving youth in our work:

Give young voices a role in decision-making and setting organizational priorities. Every individual who participated in the focus groups was part of the process, and their ideas resulted in the design and implementation of our Rising Professionals membership category. They were honored to see that their views counted and shared responsibility in ensuring the organization’s growth.

Create meaningful work with authentic responsibility. It’s typical to assign intern-type tasks to young people looking to get involved with an organization. However, more young people have a college degree than any preceding generation. They have a developed skill set and are willing to work hard. Knowing this Sherry has developed what she terms discrete projects for our young volunteers. Rather than spending 6 months with an organization doing a variety of duties, these discrete projects are prudently developed with our volunteers to meet a specific need of the organization while offering valuable experience and a practical addition to a resume.

For example, one of our current projects is the PDC Member Census 2020 Project. It is designed to produce a digital directory of PDC members that would catalog their willingness to serve as a media contact, trainer, or mentor as well as their geographic and or functional specialties. The basic concept is that our members’ talents and expertise could be better utilized if we had a database that was stored on a convenient user interface. The project was created to expand membership engagement. It is spearheaded by Briana Baglini, a Full member and Shannon McNaught, a Rising Professional member who have taken on the role of Project Coordinators. Both members demonstrated an interest in getting involved and developing their skills in data collection and research.

Encourage and involve board members. We are careful to involve our Board every step of the way. As ambassadors for our organization, they are essential to both the recruitment and retention of these new, younger members. Invite board members to participate actively in each activity or program. The event PDC hosted on September 3 for our Rising Professional members is a perfect illustration. Titled: The Art of Networking during a Pandemic, participants were welcomed by Rising Professionals Coordinator Aaron Franke. Mark Overmann, a relatively new PDC member, offered context-setting remarks. Breakout groups were co-moderated by a Board member and a Rising Professional member. Mutual respect grows from these kinds of interactions.

Sherry: We worked hard to give our focus group members ownership of the process. People stay engaged when they have the opportunity to create and play meaningful roles. I have always believed that one of the fundamental principles of leadership is giving ownership to the maximum number of people. When I was at the helm of Global Ties U.S., I developed an appreciation for this principle. If people play a role, such as serving on a committee, escorting an ambassador, introducing a speaker, or presenting a signature gift, they feel ownership and pride. They care in a way they cannot if they are only spectators. The types of people who are drawn to PDC and Global Ties U.S. are dedicated – they want to make a positive difference in this turbulent world of ours.

Olivia: During our second focus group we specifically addressed the question of what our outreach to young professionals could look like. The resounding sentiment in the room was: young people value quality mentoring relationships. As we delved deeper into these conversations, there was an understanding that participants saw the value of having mentors, but did not necessarily embrace a traditional model of top-down mentorships. By using the titles of a mentor (an experienced and trusted advisor) and mentee (a person who is advised) the relationship established is between one who gives and one who receives. The group wanted interaction, reciprocity, and relationships in which both could learn and grow. From this, we developed what we call reciprocal mentorships: neither person is assigned the title of mentor or mentee, but rather a mutual mentorship between two individuals with unique skill sets and similar passions is established.

Sherry: As someone who has been blessed with great mentors over the years, I appreciate what a profound impact they had on my life. I got to test the reciprocal idea early in the process when Samira Omarshah, one of our original focus group members, helped me set up and begin to use my Instagram account. I served as her sounding board for a project she was working on for one of her classes. PDC Board member Peter Kovach actually first coined the term reciprocal mentorship. I particularly like it because it captures one of the fundamental purposes of public diplomacy: to build mutually beneficial partnerships.

Olivia: In early May, the Public Diplomacy Council officially launched its membership application for Rising Professionals. This is a milestone for the organization. Amidst COVID-19, an interesting time in U.S. history, we hosted our very first virtual welcome and networking coffee for our 15 inaugural PDC Rising Professionals. Meeting for the first time, it was apparent that while we all had different experiences and backgrounds, we firmly believe in efforts to promote mutual understanding. Now more than ever is a time to listen and learn from one another.

Sherry: Multigenerational leadership is as rewarding as it is challenging. Every generation has something valuable to contribute. Already the Public Diplomacy Council has benefited from our new members and the energy and enthusiasm they bring to the table. Digital natives, they have greatly increased PDC’s outreach thanks to their technical and social media savvy. They ably serve as technical hosts for our programs and meetings and offer fresh perspectives on substantive issues. Our older members are delighted to learn from them as well as share their own formidable professional experiences and career advice. All have expanded their professional networks and together have strengthened the impact of our organization.

At the virtual welcome coffee our new members introduced themselves. They included Rangel Fellows, Pickering Fellows, a Presidential Management Fellow, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and others already working in the field. All share a dedication to public diplomacy. One described public diplomacy as his calling. That prompted me to share my favorite definition of a calling – that place where your greatest passion and the world’s greatest need intersect. I trust that we can share valuable perspectives with these new members and, in turn, be enriched by them.

Many members of the Global Ties U.S. family are also members of the Public Diplomacy Council. If you know of young colleagues whose calling is public diplomacy please tell them about the new PDC Rising Professionals membership category. To learn more about this membership category and apply please visit: