In the history of business, we’ve never had a more diverse workforce—one that is growing more so every day! And never to a greater extent than when it comes to generations.
For the first time in the U.S., we have seven generations working together (G.I. Generation—1901 to 1926 [Betty White], Silent Generation—1927 to 1945 [Warren Buffet], Baby Boomers—1946 to 1964, Generation X—1965 to 1980, Millennials—1981 to 2000, Generation Z—2001 to 2009, and Alpha Generation—2010 to 2024[i] [All the 11-year-old kids out there starting their very own businesses].
Most managers in their heart-of-hearts don’t consider they fall prey to generational biases. And yet, sometimes, as we dig deep, we uncover blind spots.
For years, companies have spent a slew of time, attention, and money on this issue. Only the dial has never moved dramatically. Tension still exists.
I hope what you read now will open your mind to hidden agendas that may harm your capacity to lead. I intend to present practical, wisdom tips you can try out immediately.
I participated in a “Generational Synergy” interactive meeting, from Baby-boomer to Generation Alpha (coined by Mark McCrindle), in the room all providing input.[ii] Much to my chagrin, I discovered a few unhelpful beliefs squirreling around under my: I’m uncontaminated by generational biases.
Interesting, each participant—no matter the age—related to many of the generational descriptors while all expressed: But I’m different!
While we discussed the various generation characteristics, he most prolonged and tension-filled interactions occurred when talking about the Boomer and Millennials.
So, Insight #1: As you deal either individually or in a group… Never begin by speaking to an executive’s generational identity. It doesn’t support meaningful interactions. Instead, you influence through recognizing individuality, uniqueness, and strengths. Everyone sees themselves as distinctive. After all separation and independence is a crucial milestone to the maturation process—and are leadership qualities.
Insight #2: There’s no question Boomers have ruled the roost in business, with roughly 80 percent of S&P companies being run by them—in addition to their boardroom domination. Yet, the Millennials, now the largest working generation, are chomping at the bit eager to have their chance to be top dog.
One Millennials’ ire seeped through in one bold question: I just want to know when the Boomers are getting out of my way!
Whew! That’s a heap of pent-up frustration. As a manager, you can’t afford to allow negative energy to ferment. What actions can you take to let the steam out?
Insight #3: No matter your age, businesses’ dramatic change since you came up the ladder is staggering. Remember when you were promoted into a position and needed to stretch your capabilities? How often did you shake in your boots over challenging assignments?
You probably even failed or had less than stellar outcomes on many of your projects. Now, executives must demonstrate skillsets for the next level before even being considered.
Today’s business culture has executives living on the knife’s-edge every day. Did you experience pressure coming up the ranks?
Yes. But never at this level.
It’s up to you to consistently, intentionally expand your executive’s range.
Yes, I know everyone is being measured quarter-to-quarter for profitability which makes failure problematic. But if you don’t, your people will be frustrated by their lack of development, and it will handicap their future.
Insight #4: The Baby-boomers (in the spirit of transparency, I am one) immediately went into coaching/mentoring the other generations—particularly, Millennials—based on sage success factors they garnered through the years of being influencers.
Story-after-story voiced how hard they’d worked, how loyal they’d been, how they honored the wisdom of those in-charge, how accountable they were, respectful, etc. They were proud of their accomplishments, and it showed.
Yet, none of the other generations seemed to understand the amazing transitions Boomers generated, nor I, might add, did I see empathy towards how tricky business is today for the Millennials. As a manager, challenge yourself to stop seeing the answers or coaching through your limited lens. Gain a broader perspective.
Insight #5: When it comes time to share the wonders Boomers appreciated in Millennials, the acknowledgments centered on their technical cleverness. They’re the Boomers’ go-to-saviors when they run into problems. One even commented on a Millennial’s innovative thinking as a subordinate because…. You got it. They brought technology solutions that sped up processes!
If I were a Millennial, I wouldn’t be a happy camper if the bulk of the praise I receive is about a skill that is as natural to me as water is to a fish. Wouldn’t you want to be acknowledged for the strengths you took on and built for yourself?
One talent is simply being in the right environment at the right time, having little to do with you. The other, you own.
Managers, stop looking at the surface. Instead, investigate more profoundly to compliment your Millennials on specific attributes that are more applicable to them than technical expertise alone. Acknowledge behavior that has been acquired through choice and commitment always feels better to the receiver.
Insight #6: Boomers seemingly forget that all the generations following behind have experiences very unlike those they had while securing their winning formula. The war stories weren’t always applicable for today’s marketplace. Change the focus to coach into what is relevant for your future leaders.
Do Boomers have the right to be proud of their accomplishments? You bet they do.‘
Think about the challenges they’ve faced and overcome as part of their life and career journey.
Boomers had their first glimpse of IBM Pcs and Apples in their teens to early 30s—now computers are prolific. The primary technology breakthrough at that time was the rotary telephone, and finding a working phone booth was thrilling—now, cell phones travel with you everywhere. And you’ll never believe the Boomers form of their early years’ in-house entertainment was the radio and tube television—now there are way more choices than a scratchy sound coming out of a box or three black-and-white channels.
These Boomers, who have traveled the bumpy beginnings of the technology road, are considered digital immigrants despite acquiring many IT skills on their rise to the top—I even wince as I write that.
Millennials often don’t seem to appreciate the growth achieved by these Boomers.
On the other hand, Millennials have a significant voice in today’s marketplace, which they’re often not recognized for having. They’re tired of waiting to attain their rightful place in the scheme of the corporate hierarchy. Not only that, they’re put off by the way the world views them, so there are pent-up feelings of injustice waiting to emerge. And I don’t blame them
Millennials entered the marketplace advocating a balanced life (in an effort of transparency, I was cheering and supporting the concept) after watching their Boomer parents’—often called the workaholic generation—work commitment often took precedence over family. The result was businesses chewed them up. Millennials were soon labeled as s less engaged employees–even lazy.
Valuing and understanding one another’s reality is a significant factor for filling the gap between generations with goodwill.
Insight #7: Boomers are responsible for shaping the successors coming up the ranks to secure organization’s future. Millennials, your job is to figure out ways to navigate the gap successfully.
Startling was a Millennial’s comment that: Faced with a knowledge gap, he preferred checking online for instruction rather than going directly to a person.
Diametrically opposite to the Boomers who choose to gain insight from wise human sources. Boomers, don’t expect your Millennials to come to you. And Millennials, you have to know that Boomers are looking for you to tap them on the shoulder for counsel. It’s part of the ritual of being on the team they’re building for the future.
Insight #8: Ponder this Millennial… Why is a smooth succession of value to you? For two reasons, you want to be an influencer, and the only way you get on the team is to be assessed as a high-potential employee by the rules of business today. Additionally, as you become the heads of companies in the not too distant future, the tables will turn. You’ll be facing a transfer of power yourself. The lessons you learn now will facilitate the process when it is your time to hand over the leadership reins.
The wisdom and processes developed to bridge the gap between you and the leadership above you will come in handy. Those Gen Zers and Alpha Generation trailing behind you will soon be charging up the ladder fast and furiously. Like you, they’ll be ripe to wrest the reins of power from you just as you’re poised to do now from the Boomers and Gen Xers. And they’re a formidable bunch.
Notably, the Alpha Generation brings a lot to the table. They’re culturally diverse, practically born with their umbilical cord attached to their cell phones and iPads (an earlier age than any other generation), so they’re tech-savvy at a whole new level. Added to all of that, they’re on track to be the largest generation—even eclipsing the Millennials—in business.
Insight #9: On a humungous aside, Gen X functions as the translation department between the Boomers and the Millennials. Not an easy space to operate within. Not to mention they hold leadership roles from mid-level management to the highest ranks.
In our meeting, the bulk of the tensions were between the Boomers and Millennials. Gen Xers are essential for your company’s smooth operations.
So, managers, I would advise spending intentional time on bolstering their commitment and work satisfaction. You can’t do with them.