Leading Across Generations

Today’s program was on Leading Across Generations.
Misti Burmeister
My first guest was Misti Burmeister, the best-selling author of “From Boomers to Bloggers: Success Strategies across Generations” and a recognized expert in cross-generational leadership.
Misti first got interested in the challenges of cross generational leadership styles when she fell victim to the misunderstandings so common between Boomers and Gen Xers.
In the 10 years since, she has found five areas where the generations frequently miscommunicate:
  • Paying Your Dues versus Wanting It All Now
  • Just Do the Work versus What Can the Company Do for Me?
  • Appreciate What Has Come Before versus Bucking the System
  • Be at Work When Needed versus Freedom and Flextime
  • Follow the Rules versus I See a Better Way
More importantly, Misti has found common ground where these areas of tension can become areas of high performance. To take just the first example — Paying Your Dues versus Wanting It All Now — the synthesis is to build credibility and create path. You can do that by first clearly articulating the vision and mission of the organization, secondly by clearly articulating the vision and mission you have for yourself, thirdly by encouraging the other person to clearly articulate their vision and mission for themselves, and finally by discovering the win-win scenario where each person can further their personal mission by furthering the company mission.
If you are a skeptic — as I admit I was before I began research on this topic — many of Misti’s solutions will sound merely like basic leadership or common sense. However, few things are less common than common sense, and this blog and radio program are devoted to basic leadership. Furthermore, you may not always realize which element of basic leadership is called for in a given situation.
By identifying the areas of conflict first, and offering the leadership solutions second, Misti makes it extremely easy for us to see ourselves, recognize our challenges quickly, and have confidence in her solutions.
To quickly summarize the five solutions to the above, they are:
  • Create a Path And Build Credibility
  • Create a Learning Relationship
  • Create a Shared Vision
  • Align the Vision and Establish Accountability
  • Create a Common Strategy And Identify Acceptable Risk
There is obviously a lot more, and for that you should buy her book.
Susan Harris
My second guest was Susan Harris.
Susan is a 25 year veteran of information technology at a large international engineering and manufacturing firm that includes four generations in the workplace. Her organization (which must remain nameless because she is not a corporate spokesperson) was experiencing a terrible difficulty with retaining newer workers. Especially younger workers were leaving the company — the attrition was about 50% within five years, which is a horrifically expensive problem.
After extensive research, they realized that the younger workers need to be led and managed in ways that were different from what their bosses were used to.
Susan agreed with Misti that praise — effective praise, delivered frequently and honestly — is a key motivator especially for younger workers.
Across the four generations at Susan’s company — from the Silent Generation who are now age 67 and older, through Boomers and Gen X to the Millennials aged 27 and under — there are huge differences in communication styles.
The company realized that they needed to address their retention problem. They also needed to address their challenges in getting these different generations to work effectively together and communicate well across the generational lines.
In the process of studying the problem, they noticed that they are currently about 1/2 Boomers and 1/4 Gen-Xers, and in about 10 years that will flip to 1/4 Boomers and 1/2 Gen-Xers.
From Generation to Collaboration
They needed to enable the entering workers to find ways to connect with each other. This turned into a study specifically on collaboration. How does the new worker fit in from Day One? How do work groups leverage the knowledge in the heads of senior workers?
The firm needed to find ways to connect people — and discovered that a key tool was a Facebook style company directory, that listed names, faces, skills, hobbies, and so on. It enables workers to engage, build trust, and remove boundaries. They’ve built several such tools and deployed them in-house.
These social network tools allow people to self-identify their skills, and have now built an environment that is catching on — about 60,000 employees are now self-organizing and collaborating across normal organizational lines.
This not only ties the younger workers in more closely with the company. It also allows — through ranking and rating by others — for better contributions to rise up. This gives a sense of recognition that is deeply rewarding for the contributor, and serves the firm better.
Consider the in-house travel agency. They used to offer an internal web site with a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) and their official answers. That’s been replaced with a Wiki that allows the travelers themselves to edit the questions and answers and make the information both more accurate and more up-to-date.
This Web 2.0 approach, in progress less than a year, is already paying off in better projects and employee engagement, Susan believes.
There’s been significant pushback, of course, especially from older managers. They worry that workers might be wasting time. How will they charge their hours? What if they surf the Internet all day?
So there’s a marketing challenge. Yes, you have to hold people accountable for results. If your staff are goofing off, it’ll show up because they won’t deliver on time. And it’s your job as a leader and manager to make sure people know what their accountabilities are. Once the older managers get past some of their resistance, this approach begins to generate excitement and a sense of opportunity.
Lessons from Videogames
My own take on this is that we can learn a lot by looking at the most successful modern video games, and emulating aspects of those games when it comes time for leading younger workers — indeed, when leading all workers.
The most successful video games are the ones that work with human nature and that harness the tendencies and desires of most people most of the time. So, looking at Fable 2 or Fallout 3, you see that the best games make it easy to adjust the difficulty level, make it easy to find your way and not get lost or frustrated, allow you to undertake any number of quests or tasks at once, and pick which one you want to work on at any given moment. They also keep score for you, and provide detailed feedback on how well you’re doing. Accomplishments are rewarded with badges, “gamer points” and the like, and Leader Boards showing the top performers are on prominent display.
My takeaway from this program is that there are some basic tools that every leader needs — the ability to praise, to give feedback, to keep workers oriented and engaged. Leaders must repeatedly articulate the vision of the firm, understand the vision each worker has for the future, and find ways to link them for win-win outcomes. Leaders must know their people, must care about them, and must provide them with meaningful and challenging work, and give recognition for work well done.
The challenge of leading across generations is simply another in the infinite variety of ways leaders will experience these constants. And I have no doubt these challenges will re-emerge with new names in 10 and 20 years, to be met with these same eternal leadership skills.
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