Leadership by the New Generation

Posted: June 10, 2009 in Personality Development
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Bridging the Gap Between Younger and Older Leaders

Different generations, different approaches?

Picture this scenario: the leader of a long-established team in your organization has retired, and his replacement is a young manager straight out of business school. She’s anxious to get going – with fresh ideas and fresh enthusiasm – and your CEO hopes that she’ll bring some new life and energy into the company.

As the weeks go by, however, you begin to see growing discomfort and conflict between the older staff and this new team member. Your older colleagues think “the new kid” is overconfident, pushy, and too anxious to leave right at 5:00pm. The newcomer finds it hard to get support from her older colleagues. She’s concerned that they can’t (or won’t) multitask, they’re less confident with technology, and they’re unwilling to share their hard-earned knowledge. As a result, cooperation is suffering.

How can you bridge this generation gap? And why is this important?

There’s little doubt that the US workforce is at a unique point in history (we’ll look at other countries shortly). As “Baby Boomers” (people born between 1946 and 1964) begin to retire, the new generation steps into their shoes.

Now, we’re going to make some sweeping generalizations here – this topic demands them. Not everyone in these generations fits these generalizations, however enough do to make them useful!

Generation X, or Gen X (born between 1965 and 1976), and Generation Y, or Gen Y (also called “Millennials,” born between 1977 and 1998), have values and work styles that are completely different from baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the World War II generation (born between 1928 and 1945). Finding ways to bridge the gaps within this new multigenerational workforce takes great skill and it all starts with understanding how leaders of different generations think, and what’s important to them.

Four Generations at Work:

Today’s workforce spans four different generations.

While the precise definitions of these generation vary, sociologists (starting with researchers Howard Schuman and Jacqueline Scott) generally define them as follows:

  • World War II cohort (born 1928 to 1945): Often tending to be conformist and uncomfortable with change, the WWIIs are usually team players.
  • Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964): Usually more individual, boomers often work toward improving society for others. They can be workaholics, but can also be reluctant users of technology.
  • Generation X (born 1965 to 1976/1979): Generally accepting diversity and rejecting rules, Gen X-ers are adequate users of technology, and are often entrepreneurial.
  • Generation Y (born 1977/1980 to 1998/2001): Gen Y-ers often rewrite the rules, they’re passionate about technology, and many have environmental concerns.

In the US, the drop in birth rate in the post baby boom years means that, by 2010, the number of people in the 35-44 middle management age-group will drop by nearly 20%. Many other major economies worldwide are facing similar demographic changes. One practical consequence of this is that organizations will have to work much harder to attract and retain good people.

“New generation” leaders are a scarce commodity, and should be nurtured as such.

And new generation leaders themselves need to understand the differences in outlook between themselves and old leaders, and manage their working relationships appropriately.

Different Generations: What They Care About

The new generations of leaders often have a completely different way of working from their older counterparts.

For example, while boomers and the World War II generation usually view long hours as evidence of loyalty and hard work, Gen X and Y tend to try to have more work/life balance. They’ve seen their parents’ lack of quality of life, and the lack of loyalty that companies showed to these hard-working parents in the 1990s, and they’re not impressed.

They want flexible hours, more vacation time, continuous training, and telecommuting options. They expect to leverage technology to work efficiently instead of staying late in the office to get it all done.

Boomers and the WWIIs have traditionally felt that you have to “pay your dues” to your company – and if you hate your job, that’s just part of life. Generations X and Y typically don’t accept this; they want rewarding, intellectually stimulating work – and they don’t want someone watching them too closely to check on their progress. These new groups are independent, creative, and forward thinking. They celebrate cultural diversity, technology, and feedback, and they prefer more of a “lattice” or individualized approach to management (as opposed to the traditional “corporate ladder”).

The new generations also tend to like teamwork. Studies have shown that colleague relationships rank very high on Gen X and Y’s list of priorities. Things like salary and prestige can often rank lower than boomers and WWIIs might expect, or might want for themselves.

Note:

Some people argue that differences between generations aren’t as strong as are suggested here, and that people’s life stages are often more significant (see our article on the Life/Career Rainbow for more on this.)

Our opinion is that people are complex, and are affected by a range of different factors; that life stage is, of course, important in the way that people think and behave; but that there are differences in attitude between different generations, and these can lead to sometimes-profound misunderstandings between people of different generations.

Attracting and Retaining the New Generations

Many have talked about how Gen X and Y seem always ready to leave one company and move onto something better, as soon as there’s an opportunity. While it’s true that they usually won’t stay with a job if they’re unhappy – as boomers often did – this doesn’t mean they aren’t serious or loyal.

It simply means that if you want to keep the best and brightest leaders in your organization, you need to offer them an environment that’s geared to their values.

Quite a few Fortune 500 companies are changing their entire organizations to meet the wants and values of these new generations. Here are some examples:

  • A major U.S. chemical company has eliminated its “corporate ladder” approach to management. There are no bosses, and there’s no top and bottom in the chain of command. Instead, authority is passed around through team leaders, so everyone in the company has a sense of equality and involvement.
  • A large U.S. accounting firm gives four weeks of vacation to every new hire (most U.S. companies offer only two weeks). This firm also offers new parents classes on how to reduce their working hours to spend more time with their families.
  • A software company in Silicon Valley has no set office hours. Staff come in and work when they choose. Everyone gets paid time off every month to do volunteer work, and they get a six-week sabbatical every four years.

If you think these dramatic policies would never work and would be too costly, then remember – these are all very profitable, highly productive companies with low staff turnover. They’ve made new rules, and they’re successful.

Leadership Styles

So, what does all this say about the new generation’s leadership styles? Well, it’s easy to see that Gen X and Y are unlikely to lead in the same way the boomers and the WWIIs did.

The new leaders value teamwork and open communication. They’ll encourage collaboration, and they won’t give direction and expect to be followed just because they’re in charge. They want to understand their peers and other people’s perspectives.

They’ll spend more time building relationships with their teams than their predecessors did. Because they value their family time, they’ll also give their staff enough time for personal lives. As a result, corporate culture might become less rigid than it is now, bringing more flexibility and a sense of fun.

As a result, if you’re a member of a team whose leadership is being passed from an older generation leader to a new generation leader, you’ll probably need to adjust to having more autonomy delegated to you, and to finding that the boss may not be around as much to check on things.

This new generation values action, so they’ll work more efficiently and productively to earn time off. They’ll expect their team to work hard too, but they’ll also know when it’s time to leave the office and go play. One of the ways in which they gain this efficiency is by using technology. Although they themselves will usually get to grips with this easily, you may need to remind new generation leaders that other members of their team need more training and support than they do themselves, if they’re to get up to the same speed with new applications.

But they’ll also follow a leader who has heart. So if you have new generation managers in your team, then you’ll probably have to prove your worth before they’ll fully support you. But once you show them that worth, they’ll follow you all the way.

Tips:

Here are some things you can do in your company to ensure that your new generation of leaders wants to stay.

  • Offer ongoing training, especially if it teaches skills like organization, time management, leadership, and communication. People in Gen X and Y usually love to learn new things, so opportunities to grow are high on their list of priorities.
  • Increase non-monetary benefits. Gen X and Y tend to value time as much as, if not more than, money. They have lives outside of work, and spending time with family and having fun are very important to them. Increase your vacation benefits and offer flexible working hours. These people are often busy parents who appreciate when a company understands that the traditional 9-to-5 day isn’t always practical.
  • Give them freedom. Gen X and Y are often self-reliant and don’t always look to a leader for direction. Their goal is to complete tasks in the most efficient way possible, while still doing them well. So don’t force them to work under a management style that boomers often preferred, with the boss giving orders. Give them the freedom to make their own decisions.
  • Earn their loyalty and respect. Gen X and Y may not automatically be loyal to leaders, just because those leaders are in charge. Younger staff want open communication and leaders who are supportive and worthy of being followed.
  • Treat women and men as equals. Gen X and Y grew up with mothers who were often focused on their careers as well as their families. They’re used to viewing women and men equally, so be sure you compensate both genders equally. If women feel they’re the target of discrimination, you’ll quickly lose them.
  • Be “green.” The new generations have grown up with Earth Day and the threat of global warming. They want to make less of an impact on the environment. Studies have shown that people who work for companies with green initiatives have higher job satisfaction, and turnover is usually much lower.

Key Points

There’s no doubt that the new generation of leaders has priorities that are often quite different from those of most leaders in place today.

So if you want to hire and keep the best and brightest people, the ones who will lead your company into the future, then you must create a work environment that’s tailored to their values and priorities.


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Comments
  1. hedp2029 says:

    Thoughtful and insightful essay. Kudos. But it’s missing an important part of the equation: Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and Generation X.

    Google Generation Jones, and you’ll see it’s gotten a ton of media attention, and many top commentators from many top publications and networks (Washington Post, Time magazine, NBC, Newsweek, ABC, etc.) now specifically use this term. The Associated Press’ annual Trend Report chose the Rise of Generation Jones as the #1 trend of 2009.

    It is important to distinguish between the post-WWII demographic boom in births vs. the cultural generations born during that era. Generations are a function of the common formative experiences of its members, not the fertility rates of its parents. Many experts now believe it breaks down this way:

    DEMOGRAPHIC boom in babies: 1946-1964
    Baby Boom GENERATION: 1942-1953
    Generation Jones: 1954-1965
    Generation X: 1966-1978

    Here is an op-ed about GenJones as the new generation of leadership in USA TODAY:
    http://www.usatoday.com/printedition/news/20090127/column27_st.art.htm

    Here’s a page with a good overview of recent stuff about GenJones:
    http://generationjones.com/2009latest.html

    And here’s a five minute video featuring dozens of America’s top political commentators discussing the importance of Generation Jones:

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