Invest in next Gen X leaders now!

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By Phyllis Weiss Haserot
This is part of a series of regular columns by generational expert and internationally known consultant, coach, writer, and speaker Phyllis Weiss Haserot on intergenerational relations and navigating the challenges of the multi-generational workplace for better productivity, retention, succession planning, and business development results.

Many smart companies and professional firms have not abandoned training in these tight economic times. They are betting that training and coaching the next generation in leadership skills will help them through the recovery period and give them an edge when competitors start building again.

Generational DefinitionsHere are some quick definitions. Generations are defined by the similar formative influences – social, cultural, political, economic – that existed as the individuals of particular birth cohorts were growing up. Given that premise, the age breakdowns for each of the four generations currently in the workplace are approximately:

Traditionalists born 1925-1942
Baby Boomers born 1943-1962
Generation X born 1963-1978
Generation Y/Millennials born 1979-1998 (under age 30 today)

True, many companies have cut training. A survey in December 2008 of 117 large U.S. companies by Watson Wyatt Worldwide Inc. revealed that 23 percent of respondents had cut training and 18 percent planned cuts in 2009. But others are investing in leadership development, which is gaining a growing share of training budgets. And that's a departure from the past according to Yaarit Silverstone, global managing director for the organizational effectiveness practice at Accenture Ltd. Cutting leadership training in past downturns had led to mid-level managers and top performers exiting when the economy recovered.

The focus on leadership development has been observed even in companies that are reducing headcount. And that is wise. For the immediate present the people remaining need to be more skilled to do more with less and keep clients satisfied and loyal.

For the future when the economy turns up, there may well be a leadership gap in numbers, since Generation X, who will need to fill the experienced Boomers' shoes as the latter leave the work force, is a significantly smaller generation. In general, they have not been trained with the same attention that the Boomers got coming up the ranks. And many Gen Xers have expressed less interest in taking on greater responsibility

We've observed in the accounting as well as other industries that Gen Xers don't like managing Gen Y/Millennials. Though both generations are tech savvy and greatly value work/life flexibility, their general approach to work and co-workers differs, originating with the economic, social, and political influences that informed their upbringing and early work experiences. Often left pretty much to fend for themselves, Gen Xers tend to like to work autonomously and are proud of their independent resourcefulness.

Gen Yers, by way of contrast, like working in teams, collaborating, and want and need a lot of management guidance. They ask a lot of questions upfront because that is what they were educated to do and they want to feel secure that they will do things right and garner praise. Gen X finds this demand for continual attention frustrating, even annoying, and considers Gen Y to be coddled and over-protected.

The main issue is not whose perspective and attitude is better, but how leadership and management style can flex to build better rapport and maintain desired productivity, client satisfaction, and rewards. Training to inculcate long established leadership and management principles delivered the usual way probably won't work.

While business schools had been benefiting when things were booming, companies are sending fewer people to executive education courses. And rather than asking business schools to create custom courses for them, they are saving money by conducting the training in-house - either using staff or bringing in outside experts. Those employers want to be sure that the people they have are well prepared to lead during a recovery when they tend not to leave and afterwards.

They are using both Web-based and live training. For example, Canon USA Inc. is combining Web tools and instructor-led courses to increase the training for newly promoted managers over the past efforts. Some of the attention is on strategic decision-making and influencing employees.

Given the potentially overwhelming numbers of Gen Yers coming into the workforce to outnumber Gen Xers already there, they will not and cannot be converted to the Gen X freelance mentality. Since there needs to be a meeting of the generational minds, and Gen Yers need more experience under their belts before leapfrogging (as they would like to), an organically generated compromise without either generation losing their authenticity or their edge must be reached. For this to happen, organizations need to do the following:

  • Foster a culture of respect, openness, transparency, and flexibility.
  • Invest in facilitated dialogues within work teams and multi-generational governance committees to capitalize on the best of the styles of each generation.
  • Invest in leadership and management training for Gen Xers.
  • Establish mentoring circles to provide the support and feedback each generation wants in its own way.

It certainly seems like investing in next generation leaders, to engage them in making them the best they can be, needs to be a high and urgent priority for any business that intends to survive and thrive now and in "the new normal."

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2009. All rights reserved.
Phyllis Weiss Haserot is the president of Practice Development Counsel, a business development and organizational effectiveness consulting and coaching firm she founded over 20 years ago. A special focus is on the profitability of improving inter-generational relations and transitioning planning for baby boomer senior partners. Haserot is the author of "The Rainmaking Machine" and "The Marketer's Handbook of Tips & Checklists" (both Thomson/West 2008).

See all of the articles in this series.

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