Way back in 2005, I attended a luncheon whose speaker was the New England leader of one of the Big 4 accounting firms. Among other things, he talked about how to manage members of “Generation X,” a distinction he suggested was critical thanks to how different they were from those who had come before.
It didn’t ring true for me, and I mentioned it to my father the next time we were together. He laughed, and shared the following story:
When my dad was about twenty, he overhead a conversation between his barber and an older gentleman sitting in the next chair. The man was complaining about “the younger generation.” The barber replied, “That is nonsense. When I started cutting hair fifty years ago, my older customers were telling me the same thing!”
Fast forward to today, and I’m still hearing this kind of thing.
I have attended numerous meetings in recent months in which Gen X speakers talk about how different the
are and, as a result, how hard they are to manage. So, if you trust my inter-generational math, these sorts of conversations have been going on since at least the early 1900’s. (Frankly, I suspect they’ve been going on since the beginning of time.)
What is really happening here? Surprise! … as time passes, we all get older. And the older we get, the more dissimilar the people coming up behind us seem.
Are they that different? Not much. Have we changed? Hopefully, yes, particularly if we have advanced up the organization. But different or not,
as company leaders we need to find a way to bring
along — from those working at their first “real” job, to those approaching retirement.
Leading is Different Than Managing
In most companies, a typical career path looks like this: "Doer," to process manager, to leader. The roles are very different, as is the perspective required as one moves down the path.
As I said in, “
When to Lead, When to Manage, and Why You Must Do Both
,” leadership has to do with getting people and groups of people (organizations) to follow in a clearly defined direction. Processes, by contrast, are not led, they are managed.
If you confuse the two, you risk annoying your people and/or losing control of your processes.
In most cases, leadership roles come
after one demonstrates success as a process manager: controllers become CFOs, sales managers become the VP of sales, etc. When the process manager (and sometimes, a doer) moves to a role that demands leadership, they (hopefully) begin to appreciate the things required of any well run organization.
Often, the people that talk about how different the younger generation is are in their first real leadership role. And much of the complaints from the younger generation stem from newbie leader mistakes.
What makes an organization run well? If I had a master list, I would be a different kind of consultant.
Still, I have found several things to be important when it comes to leadership:
This is where it all begins. Everything flows from here.
2) Make sure everybody knows why the work they are doing is important to the organization’s success.
When I was in the rent-a-car business years ago, my finance team had a lot to achieve in a short period of time. I relied on a
to assess the situation, develop a clear objective, develop strategies to achieve the objective, develop plans to execute the strategy, and establish a tracking system.
The plan items became each individual’s objectives. Since everyone understood the objectives, strategies and plans, they understood why what they had to do mattered.
This means that in addition to having an understanding of the desired overall outcome, every person understands what they individually and collectively need to get done, has access to the resources needed, the organization recognizes each person’s authority to do what they have been charged with doing, and the charged person knows what he
can’t do without proper permission or approvals.
the emphasis is on setting conditions so people can get the work done,
on telling them how to do it. This is where process managers promoted into leadership roles often trip up. (It’s telling that a consistent comment from first-time leaders on the subject of “managing” the younger generation is that the young ones don’t like being told how to do things!)
Empowering in this sense also means that others know they need to assist when needed. Turf wars and silo problems dissolve when the entire organization knows who has been empowered to do what.
4) Provide timely and meaningful feedback.
In the rent-a-car example, I tracked progress against our objectives through regular reviews with each direct report. I provided feedback along the way and, if resource constraints became a problem, I got them the resources.
Our annual review process consisted of two parts. The first part tracked progress relative to goals. From the outset, everyone understood their goals and why they were important, so the conversation was meaningful to both them and the organization. And for the “doers,” the objectives were set quarterly since their goals changed often. That way they weren’t reviewed against outdated objectives at year end.
The second part was just simple 360-degree feedback. Every employee was evaluated by peers, immediate superiors and direct reports, each of whom answered three simple questions: 1) What should they start doing that they are not doing now? 2) What should they stop doing? 3) What should they continue doing?
5) Ensure that people are well-suited for the roles they are assigned.
When you give people an opportunity for success doing work they enjoy, it is hard for them not to be happy and motivated. At the rent-a-car company, once everyone’s objectives had been distributed, many people were unhappy with the roles they were assigned.
We responded by reassigning 20% of my team into new positions.
There was some rough sledding at first, but in the end the team accomplished more than they would have otherwise and scored the highest of any team in the company on six different measures of job satisfaction. Of course, there are other ways to make sure the people are in the right roles, but this way was quick and expedient.
6) Invest in development.
Whether through formal training, on the job coaching, mentoring, or something else entirely,
entry level employees in particular will complain and leave if not supported in their quest to learn and move up the ladder.
It’s important for the organization as well — veteran leaders understand the value in having people ready to step into bigger roles as the opportunity arises. And perhaps the biggest leap is the one to leader.
I suspect that unprepared first time leaders are the true source of complaints from the younger generation. My experience has been that the best way to develop first time leaders is by osmosis - by working for and seeing the actions of experienced leaders.
You could write a book (many have) on what it takes to create and lead a well-run organization.
When it comes to developing the next generation, however,
I think it’s less about highlighting how they are
and more about establishing and reinforcing fundamental truths about how people are motivated, what they need to succeed and institutionalizing all of that in the organization.
In the end, and regardless of what labels we use to describe different age populations, we have more in common than we often realize.