The problem with “Follow your passion”

Y living in the momentIn the face of adversity, a highly recognizable trait of Generation Y is their ability to make use of creative resourcefulness to go around obstacles. It is indeed through this ability that they make sense of a constantly changing world and obtain an adaptative edge over their colleagues from other generations.

However, like any other behaviour, the excess and all-purpose application of going around obstacles is not without a cost. Its cost lies clearly in the helplessness some Gen Y members feel in the face of obstacles which one can only go through. This uncomfortable helplessness is often translated into behaviours that attest for a lack of perseverance and resilience.

No other generational slogan epitomizes more this behaviour than “Follow your passion”. On his HBR article “Solving Gen Y’s passion problem” , Cal Newport show the explosion of this sentence as a widespread career advice during Gen Y’s formative years.

Born from a mix of well-intentioned parenting and a general lack of meaningful work (a research from Georges Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni indicates that in the period of 1976 and 1986, two thirds of the 500 largest american organizations were engaging in varying degrees of illegal activities), this sentence was transformed by some Yers into a “noble” shield, protecting them from confronting adversity altogether.

An enlightening analogy can be made when one ventures out of the professional spheres into the more personal realm. Although any wise adult would not wait for Prince Charming (or Beautiful Princess), it is precisely during the same period of “Follow your passion” (80s-00s) that divorce rates doubled and first-mariage age increased by 4 years. Put together, this data attest for a well-known behaviour of job (or relationship) hopping on the first sign of conflict, that is not only characteristic of Gen Y but also of the times we live in.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m the upmost supporter of following one’s heart, whether in work or love. However, the assumption that there’s such a job or person ready to understand us entirely and delight us forever is a lure. There is no such thing as a fulfilled life, because meaning and happiness cannot be found in the destination, they’re a consequence of the path we trail.

In our hunger for connection, achievement and meaning, we read “Follow” in the imperative as an obligation to be met, a box to be checked, and, most importantly as something lying out there, in the outside world, waiting for us to claim. Pushing this logic further, if our “Passion” is already out there, then it precedes the encounter (with the job or the person) and one should be able to love it from day one.

And it is in this final deduction that lies the biggest problem with “Follow your passion”. By assuming it’s out there, then how can we not love it from the start? Conversely, if we can’t immediately and constantly take joy out of a particular job (or relationship), then it mustn’t be our passion. Hence the aimless hopping.

The hard truth is that more often than not love and passion develop slowly, through complex and unexpected paths. Except for a few lucky ones that meet early on their vocation or lifelong companion, most of us will get there after awkward, uncomfortable and frequent encounters with ourselves. Our passions are not found, but revealed to us, once and again, as we create the conditions inside us.

And even when they’re revealed to us, it doesn’t mean they’re any easier. The instant gratification and understanding of our impact are not in arm’s reach every single day, the fear of failure (or worse yet, the fear of success) haunts us, and the gremlins in our mind comparing our choices with the alternate path return when times get tough.

In summary, living your passion is exhilirating and liberating, and it also hurts. As poet David Whyte once said “There’s no path you can take without getting your heart broken, so why just not get on with the job and make sure it’s broken in a direction that’s worthwhile?”

The human adventure (and Gen Y’s challenge) is not finding your passion, but having the perseverance to live through it. For those who do, a broad range of feelings and experiences await. It is precisely in this movement that hides the essence of meaning.

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches”― Rainer Maria Rilke

21st century entrepreneurship

Meet Rachel Lowe.

One fine day, Rachel had an idea and a desire: to launch a board game that would compete against the 7-decade top-seller “Monopoly”. She researched the market for a few months before she pitched her plan to experienced venture capitalists. The result was a resounding “No” as her inexperience (she was 27 years-old then) and lack of long-term plan got in the way.

Rachel’s pitch on the Dragon’s Den gets to the core of what the shifts of the 21st century are all about.

In a predictable world where “stability leads to growth”, the way to approach business was quite straightforward:

1)      You research the market (eg. Porter’s 5 forces) and forecast how the future will be (with a little error margin)

2)      You lay out several strategies, choosing the optimal one (that maximizes your profits)

3)      You gather resources, mostly by pitching your 3-year plan to investors

4)      You work very hard and become a “winner”

In such a world, the only possible endpoint was achieving your goals.

The problem with that approach is that there’s very little that is predictable or certain about the 21st century. Just the simple exercise of Porter’s 5 forces becomes a nightmare in the face of the complexity and interconnectedness of the stakeholders’ network.

To provide a solution to this frustration, Leonard Schlesinger and Charles Kiefer met serial entrepreneurs to understand how they approached uncertainty. The result is a very interesting book called “Just Start” that outlines the principles of what they called “Creaction”.

1)      Start with desire. You don’t need to be passionate about your business in the beginning, just have enough desire to give it a try.

2)      Act quickly by taking a small smart step (that is within your acceptable loss) with the means at hand. A healthy step would be to enroll others in your idea, to multiply resources, and dilute risks. The question should be “How much am I willing to put in to see how it’ll play out?” instead of “How much will I make at the end-point of my venture?”

3)      Reflect and build from the lessons learned from that step. Reality-check is a gift and both positive and negative results give you an opportunity to adapt your aim for the next step.

4)      Repeat until you’ve succeeded, exceeded your acceptable loss, proven yourself it can’t be done or changed your mind.

Back to Rachel, Creaction was exactly her approach. She started with desire. Then, she tried to enrol others to gather resources (money and experience) by focusing her attention on the next step (the launch at Hamley’s Toy Store). She was not as concerned with the long-term plan of her venture, as she understood that trying to become the first competitor of an established brand was an unpredictable scenario. She defined her acceptable loss and built on what she has learned from the dragons and the launch.

As it turns out, Rachel’s product was an outstanding success, debunking “Monopoly” from the top-seller position already in its first year. She has then brought others along by establishing partnerships with Disney and Warner Brothers (a Harry Potter’s version) and has now sold 26 different versions of her game.

The road was not failure-free as she filed bankruptcy during the 2008 crisis, but in every  step she built from what she has learned from reality. Eight years down the road, Rachel has gained the experience of a serial entrepreneur. She knows what works and what she likes. She has saved money and has created successful opportunity-based partnerships. Had she adopted the Predictive model, her reality would have been nothing more than a line on a regret list.

The reason I’m sharing this story here is not to tell you how Generation Y is chosing entrepreneurship as an alternative to meaning inside the traditional workplace, or to explain how rampant youth unemployment (around 1 out of 3 young individuals in Europe) has contributed to the rise of entrepreneurship, or how the resources in the Idea Era have allowed individuals to express their creativity and innovation. You know this already!

Sharing stories about the many Rachel’s in this new world is essential if we’re going through and out the many crisis in our societies. Whether you’re researching about a topic with an endless list of resources (like generations at work) or jumping into 21st century entrepreneurship, your first and foremost challenge is leaning into the discomfort of uncertainty. Those who accept to let go of control and create a space that welcomes chance opportunities will be the global leaders we need so much.

How are you doing on letting go of control?

5 tips to shape you Corporate Social Responsibility program up

Generation Y and Corporate Social ResponsibilityIn my previous post, I’ve proposed to look at CSR programs through a more humanistic approach. Now that I (hope to) have convinced you of its importance and you’ve bust your brain designing your own unique CSR program, it’d be interesting to go through a brief-checklist to turn it into a best-in-class model.

1) Be authentic and leverage it with your assets

There are 2 major differences between corporate philanthropy and an effective CSR program. The first one is that corporate philanthropy is unfortunately rooted in a patronizing circle of win-lose: the business gives a bit to a cause, recovers a bit from the government and a cause gets to make up a bit for government’s social shortcomings, while CSR is about creating win-win growth opportunities. It’s businesses taking in their own hands the responsibility for creating shared added-value in the society. The second major difference is that CSR engages and transforms the business from within in ways that philanthropy can’t: after all, signing a check is just another task on a to-do list.

In order for CSR to be really transformative for the business, it has to be authentic and rely on its assets. By this I mean that whichever impact the company wants to create over the community, the best one certainly is the one that motivated its founder in the first place, daily engages employees and over which the business has built experience over decades. It sounds obvious, but how many CSR initiatives are designed upon opportunistic randomness rather than reflected strategy? In other words, unless you’re Betty Crocker, you have no place in a bake sale fundraiser!

A great example of an authentic and leveraged social program is Home Depot’s “Habitat for Humanity”. The business donates materials and its expertise in their core activity (building materials) while its employees actually build homes for those without one. The end result is not only a positive impact in the community and a stronger customer link, but employee expertise building beyond any training program and a renewed engagement and sense of purpose: win-win!

2) Live it through social media and apps

Every year, 40.000 CSR reports are issued from over 9.000 corporations worldwide.

Most of them are a 40-page pdf file covered with colorful pictures of exotic places and people wearing funny hats, a few testimonies and vague business jargon to please the few shareholders that bother reading them. There’s nothing really distinctive about the way they’re presented: they’re the void politician speech, full of “what I’ve done” and of “what I promise I’ll do”; the latter being more often than not an overly optimistic estimation.

The problem with these reports is that they’re miles away from the reality of the work really done: who were the people on the field, what motivated them, what were the challenges they hadn’t planned for, and how were they overcome, how did they impact the community: then, 1 month after, 2 years after…?

If you really want to create powerful brand connections with all stakeholders and attract Gen Y talent and consumers, your CSR program has to live and breathe, continuously! Or else, despite all your efforts, everyone will just see it at best as a one-off tax advantage, at worst as Hollywood-made green washing campaign.

To achieve a strong CSR recognition, create a dedicated social media space and make a reality-show out of it (Gen Y has grown up with MTV’s shows and they’re unabashed to confess their attraction to these journey-sharing shows). It doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) be a full-blown production (as the camera significantly reduces authenticity), just a simple journey diary fed by the participants (amateur on-the-field photos and description of daily minor event should suffice).

The most important is to have it under a format where stakeholders can really live the human dimension on a daily basis, wonder at the evolutions in individual spirituality crossing barriers and cultures, and anticipate on the next steps in making real impact.

If you’re really innovative and wants to connect with Generation Z as well, you’ll take it a step further and create an app just for it (especially if your CSR is in community education on your area of expertise). App culture is still a forming wave, but it will certainly have a huge impact on life for the next 20 years, so you better get on the wave before it gets crowded and you can’t freely surf anymore.

3) Crowd-source improvements to your employees

Effective CSR programs not only impact the community but also increase participants’ commitment.

By all means, have your CSR program designed by those in your company with a unique transversal, strategic view and powerful socio-economic insight. It’s naïve to think that anyone could launch a program that has a real impact in our complex world.

But once the launch phase is over and the champagne bottle has been opened, crowd-source ideas for tweaks and improvements to those who will live it. Don’t allow the excitement of the launch to fade nor limit yourself to the lucky few who will actually participate in the first installments of the program.

Every employee in your organization lives in a community and has therefore inspiring ideas on how the expertise he gains at work can make an impact in the world outside, and which of his unique talent or passion can be mobilized. If you guess for him and focus solely on job contents or the company’s formal IP, it’s very likely you’ll miss the tiny detail that will make him cross from an indifferent state towards a your most energetic ambassador.

Moreover, by allowing employees to bring in their ideas and responding to them, you’ll create a culture of ownership to the profound meaning we each give to our work. This action will most certainly liberate them from the current state of victimization we witness so often in organizations these days.

4) Develop a global talent pool

Social development programs are by far the best training program a 21st century leader could have.

University, regular L&D programs and business schools are outstanding developers of the left-brain. They teach future leaders to analyze, measure and deal with all sorts of “rational”, predictable and detailed information, but they let us hanging when it comes to treating right-brain information: contextualized, implicit, evolving and paradoxical.  As markets become more complex and interconnected, as attention becomes scattered in an informational flood and as Generation Y requests for a higher part of social and emotional elements in governance, we will increasingly need right-brain educational programs that enhance comfort with ambiguity and human irrationality, lateral thinking and improved emotional management. In a very comprehensive video, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains the differences between both sides of the brain.

By immersing employees in an environment of cultural ambiguity and perspective-taking that encourages both creative solution-finding and relationship-building (unencumbered by power struggles), social development programs develop precisely this part of the brain. Not using this platform to invest, test and follow-up on talent would be a seriously missed opportunity to engage your next generation of leaders.

5) Create social joint-ventures

Perhaps the most innovative (and obvious) CSR initiative is the concept of social joint-ventures.

In his HBR article “Why go it alone in community development”, Rio Tinto’s Andrew MacLeod makes the case for a renewed approach to what he calls the “billboard” model of CSR, in which each company supports one individual program. He proposes instead a “grand prix car” approach, in which a cause is supported by different sponsors, each contributing in his own expert way to the success of a venture.

Whereas a “billboard” model might work in communities with a certain amount of infra-structure, when companies decide to expand to developing countries, they’re quite rapidly confronted with complex and strongly intertwined community problems. In such regions, CSR programs that focus only on one aspect of the problem end up broken as soon as the mission is finished. This is the case of educational programs that fail to ignore transport issues or infra-structure/medical programs that underestimate maintenance limitations.

The good news is that in developing countries, the market landscape has a very peculiar structure: for each product or service available, one would often find either a multitude of small competitors or a monopoly. If non-competing market leaders in the same community joined forces instead of trying to go it alone, communities would be better served. If CSR leaders met frequently and combined their expertise in a structured program they would not only increase local productivity and consumption, but they would benefit from greater political influence, provide richer experiences to those participating in the programs and ensure that communities will remain stable even when a player leaves the scene.

What other Corporate Social Responsibility innovative ideas do you have?

The need for Corporate Social Responsibility

Gen Y Corporate Social Responsibility Note: The next 2 articles are a sequel to the 9th force described in my previous post “10 forces changing our workplace: Society” post.

During the last days, I’ve been collecting smart ideas for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs.

Over the dozens of articles and newspaper clips I’ve read, I found some interesting and sound approaches. At the same rate, they were overly rational. It’s as if “do good” is not enough, we must envelop humanistic initiatives into arguments about bottom line growth, Gen Y consumer attraction, market economic development, talent attraction, employee engagement, and asset protection from unstable governments. Although I could write several articles on each one of these arguments, I’ve thought it would be better to go back to a basic question: Are corporations people?

1) CSR reminds companies where they came from

In the midst of this rational avalanche, one HBR article by John G. Taft stood out: “Yes, corporations are people”. Behind this apparently naïve tautology lies a powerful reframing: behind every secular global corporation hides the story of an entrepreneur, an innovator and a believer, someone that rejected the limitations of his time to build something new for him and his community.

Taft argues that the ultimate role of every organization is the same of the average human being: to leave a legacy and a better world, not just generate profit. Like every human, in order to thrive in health, an organization must see itself as a member of a community, consider the impact of its actions on others and formulate its mission in terms of serving others.

The problem with this reframing is that, with time and growth, corporations tend forget its own story and values to turn into this allegedly dehumanized entity. At this point, Corporate Social Responsibility becomes essential to remind them of their origins!

2) CSR drives every employee to action and transforms the external and internal landscape

Reading the outraged comments to the article and the rants about the “evilness of corporations”, I became aware of the reverse of the coin: “people are corporations” too. Like it or not, each and every worker in a corporation holds differing degrees of responsibility over the direction their corporation takes.

The problem is that in today’s business world everyone feels like a victim and no accountable individual can be found: from the line worker all the way to the CEO. So the only solution is to create this fictional evil entity, capable of relieving us from our responsibilities. In reality, every day in our hustled routine, each and everyone of us replaces customers for numbers, employees for costs, and colleague’s relations for performance blindness (a 0.01% yearly bonus surplus counting more than the distress of the colleague sitting next to us). And believe me, I’ve been there!

Moreover, in global corporations, there’s a unison helpless speech: “I can’t do anything about it, I’m not here by choice”. What a BS! Everyone, no exception, has made a series of choices in their lives to arrive there and has an infinite amount of choices ahead of them. If you’re unhappy, there’s a world outside big corporations and plenty of people are (increasingly) living in it, while paying their mortgages.

To counter this learned helplessness, Corporation Social Responsibility programs leveraged internally allow employees to have immediate impact and establish a direct connection between the work they do and the community they serve, providing a deeper meaning to their activity.

An interesting side benefit of CSR participation is that it defocalizes the mind from the busyness of work and performance blindness, thus increasing employee personal alignment, improving work relations around him and transforming the organizational landscape (when a sufficient amount of employees participate).

I have a fundamental belief that most people are good and that they urge to make a positive difference in the world. As Generation Y holds a more prominent place in business and society, CSR programs shift from the realm of “nice to have” to “must have”, and this is a natural and sane evolution. In a recent study by Net Impact, we’re able to uncover how central this issue has become:

Generation Y Corporate Social ResponsibilityGeneration Y Corporate Social Responsibility

In my next post, I’ll present 5 innovative ways to shape your current CSR program up.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do you participate in your company’s CSR program?

If so, how satisfied are you and how does it impact your relationships with colleagues?

If not, which improvements need to be made and what role will you play?

Information indigestion and Generation Y (II)

Generation Y Reporting

The reporting indigestion analogy is not accidental. To understand how organizations can better manage information we’ll look in 5 steps at what and how they’re “eating”*:

1) Know what and why you’re measuring and when it’s time to act

The first and most difficult step is letting go. It means accepting that in today’s world it’s impossible to absorb all information available. Instead of ignoring it, organizations should mirror Yer’s behaviour and ask themselves more often “What do we need to know?” “Why do we need it?” and “Does it pay the effort to obtain this info?”

Letting go means reworking your reporting process to a reduced number of KPIs. I’m always astonished to discover organizations working with dozens (sometimes hundreds) of KPIs, whereas the name itself suggests they should be KEY performance indicators.

Once you’ve picked KPIs, does it give you a solid basis for action? Do you know what impact it has when your KPI goes below the threshold (falls below a 85% level for instance) or are you reacting to a top-down incentive? Do you know what you’ve got to do to leverage it above threshold? What’s the price to pay for a corrective action versus a preventive one? If you can’t answer these questions, like in the case of an obscure “customer response rate” KPI, then your KPI is better off in the bin.

2) Does your data tell you a story (concise, coherence and in a trend)

Ok, it’s fun to do a cross-section of every item sold (or produced) in your catalogue by region, customer age, customer sex, salesperson, distribution channel, range, etc. But which story does this tell you? How often do you really need this information? Do you need it in a report or can you generate it to answer a one-time question? Is this a changing information that needs to be observed up close (like in a product launch) or will you get the same figure month after month?

In order for your data to tell a story, it needs to be concise, coherent and generate a trend.

Concise information means that anything could be bundled into 5 or 6 categories maximum. Everything that’s below 5% of anything should be “Others” (just like in polling results). Once one element of “Others” floats above 5%, a new category is created. Conversely, if your “Others” represents 25% of something, then you’re not measuring anything.

Coherent means management should get 2 A4s maximum of graphs and charts that are connected to tell a story of how the organization is evolving. Add to that a one-pager with qualitative data, ideally selected from customer and front-line employees testimonies. From that story, it should be clear where the trends are.

3) Deep-dive trends outside your regular reporting process

To deep-dive a trend, you must know what would be a relevant time span. How further back must you look in order to turn past-oriented information into safe future-projections? In which range of possible outcomes does my estimation sit? How long into the future? Is this a projection that’s helpful and worth the effort? What are the assumptions and the hard data in this trend? From which point can I say my estimation becomes “guesstimation”?

Those are not easy questions to answer for most cases, so it makes no sense measuring them into regular reports. Only when it becomes important to focus on a KPI should managers incur in trend analysis.

4) Automate reports that are official obligations

SAPs shouldn’t be used to generate monthly strategic reports. Instead, they should produce automated reports to cover financial and legal obligations.

It’s daunting to see how many organizations have polluted their systems with unstructured information to a point they’re unable to generate automatic reports on key financial figures. The “cheapest” and most common solution is to hire an army of accountants to pass around home-made Excel sheets in mind-numbing number crunching and to copy figures around to serve headquarters’ fanciful requests.

The problem is that there’s nothing cheap about it: mistakes are made, sources are lost and most importantly those employees leave disappointed with the lack of meaning they obtain from their job (forcing newcomers to rebuild their own Excel sheets).

If it’s an official obligation, hire an external consultant to adapt your SAP to respond to it and consolidate global figures in HQ at the push of a button. This is certainly a short-term investment that pays off for a long term substantial (and often invisible) cost.

5) Periodically look at the ecosystem and use the data as a basis for dialogue

As reports become concise and coherent, it won’t be long before management notices they’ll need new information. Resist the urge to “add” and instead “replace”. What don’t I need to know at this frequency anymore? What could become a quarterly or annual indicator?

By having a short management report, managers will spend less time in meetings going through non-actionable data and more time discussing strategic decisions and how the reports can evolve with the direction of the company. They could also use this time to conduct specific deep-dive studies on trends. Conversely, the longer the report and variety of sources, the higher are the risks of option paralysis and poor decision making (based on awkward data integration and biased interpretation).

To the employees that were producing those reports (mostly Yers), there are also many benefits. First, they’ll spend more time participating in value-adding activities and less time stressing about collecting meaningless data in short delays. The ownership and engagement in the work delivered will increase along with the recognition for their inputs. Since the report will change more frequently, managers will engage with them more often to discuss new directions, clearly share new strategies, obtain feedback from the field on feasibility and provide much appreciated mentoring on business administration.

Generation Y Data Process

Managing data in a productive manner is not a side question, it’s a priority item. Transforming a heavy administrative machine into a lean and nimble start-up is more a matter of will than organizational size. The key to achieving this is to break the vicious cycle by moving the scale from “Doing things right” to “Doing the right things”.

Once an organization focuses on doing more of the right things, innovation and commitment follow. Psychologist Barry Schwartz reminds us in the following video that “even the wisest and most well-meaning people will give up if they have to swim against the current in the organizations in which they work”, the same way Tom did in the previous post. How many Toms are you willing to lose?


How’s your company managing data?

* The five steps are inspired in a couple of HBR articles by Ron Ashkenas: “Do You Need All that Data” and “Managing the Information Avalanche”

How’s your company managing data?

Top 5 Leadership X-Factors

Experiment made by NYU on Gen X’s self perception

In the HBR article “The Leaders we need now”, generational expert Tammy Erickson proposes a deeper look into some of the changes in work relations brought to light by Generation’s X refusal of an outdated management model and invites us to consider 5 Xers’ competencies that will help them lead organizations into the future.

Before we understand what changes Generation X brought about, we must describe the organizational model of Traditionalists’ and Boomers’ time. Boomers’ formative years were filled with hope for the future, belief in stability and desire to win. Winning in Boomer’s terms meant attaining success recognized by society and winning over the competition. This desire allowed them to build (or climb) immense pyramidal hierarchies all the way to the top, not without their blood, sweat and tears.

Leadership in those major corporations meant running a tight ship through a “command and control”, “divide and conquer” management model. The role of the leader was to control performance, set direction and provide the answers. The competencies most sought after for promotions were experience coupled with business-relevant knowledge (significant career changes were rare back then), vision, discretion, decisiveness and command.

As they grew into middle management positions, Xers started applying a different model inside their own sphere of power.

First, through their pragmatic result-focus, Xers started to prefer a meritocracy model over seniority for employee promotion. Then, to support their family centric values they’ve humanized work relations and designed the first work-life balance programs. Inspired by a proclivity of leadership literature, they’ve flattened organizations, encouraged project-based teams, destroyed interdepartmental walls and transformed cubicles into open spaces for collaborative work.

Alone those feats are impressive, but the most impressive part is that Gen X was able to bring about them without holding C-suite positions or a demographic leverage. What allowed them to sell those changes to Boomers was their focus on results and belief in a humanized organizational model.

In order to face tomorrow’s challenges, there are 5 leadership attitudes that Gen X can bring to the table:

1) Increase collaborative capacity

Xers are outstanding networkers. They’re the ones with books filled with business cards and often start their morning by shaking colleagues’ hands and making happy birthday phone calls. The experience of being “latchkey kids” has thought them the importance of friends for companionship and support.

As opposed to Boomers’ ideas of safeguarding intelligence, Xers truly believe that intelligence should be mobilized and shared to foster innovation. As they were digital migrants early in their careers, we can be sure they’ll support the adoption of newer communication tools for as long as they support the development of effective networks.

2) Ask compelling questions

Xers’ scepticism and ability to isolate practical truths and discern trends early on are important catalysts of change.

In the 2020 workplace, Xers will help direct Yers’ energy and their tendency to dispersion into focused, action-driven solutions. Xers’ main competencies are those of great business coaches: questioning basic assumptions, reframing challenges in ways that are intriguing and memorable, posing questions that are ambitious and novel and encouraging personal autonomy and accountability.

3) Shape corporate identity

The biggest problem with our businesses is that we’re living in a meaning-less era.

The primary reason Generation Y job hops is because meaning does not come by in every corner of our businesses. Thanks to their deep belief in collaborative work, family values and their ability to ask compelling questions, Xers are in the best position to lead organizations into common objectives that are both ambitious and rich with meaning.

4) Embrace complexity and welcome disruptive information

While Boomers believed the boss had all the answers, Xers mistrust of institutions has helped them develop a certain wariness that anticipates a future full of change. The result is an acceptance of ambiguity, an inclination towards alternatives and back-up plans and a certainty that there are no bulletproof solutions.

Although Xers and Yers share this same skill, the way this competency is translated in each case is significantly different. The world as Yers know it has always been immersed in constant, ever-increasing change and therefore they welcome, encourage and demand organizational transformation. Their requests can be however incoherent and unfounded sometimes, based more on an individual need than a business imperative.

Xers on the other hand have experienced profound disruptive social changes. They’ve seen a world of “then” and “now” and their adaptation is rather a survival skill than an unquenchable thirst. Xers are therefore more apt to embrace complexity and disruption while keeping a constant eye on long-term vision and common objectives. More importantly, because they share this skill with Yers, they’re more apt (than Boomers) to teach and persuade Yers to sticking with the old ways when they’re proven effective.

5) Appreciate diversity

The complex interconnected world of today requires leaders open to diversity. More than tolerating, not offending nor harassing those with different perspectives, our organizations need everyone’s points of views, contributions and personal experiences in order to arrive at a full understanding of complex issues and connect profoundly with the 7 billion unique individuals they serve today.

Xers logical and realistic approach to life has taught them there’s no reason any one viewpoint should be given special significance over another. As opposed to Boomers zero-sum game and Yers all-or-nothing world, they provide organizations with a much needed lesson on flexibility and cultural openness.


As Boomers retire, the air is filled with anticipation of what will happen in the tug-of-war of our organizations: Will Generation X be finally recognized for their competencies and take up the reins? Or will Generation Y with their resourcefulness, their outspoken nature and their high self-esteem jump ahead in the chain of command? The question is interesting and understandably engaging for each individual involved. At the same time, it’s the wrong question!

It’s the wrong question because it works within the paradigm of the organizations built by the previous generations. The key factors of professional success in today’s world are leadership, connectivity and collaboration and they are not the product of a title, but of an attitude. Whether in the board rooms or energizing the open space, the leaders we need are a combination of the flawless execution of the Xers with the idealistic creativity of the Yers.

What other leadership skills we must all learn from Generation X?

An X-Ray of Generation X

 Generation X work life balance

From Douglas Coupland’s novel “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture”, pg 142, that coined the term Generation X

If there’s one word that describes Generation X, it is “rupture”.

In my previous post, I’ve invited you to an empathic journey through the lives of this divided, paradoxical and rather unfortunate generation. Today we’ll further dive into the roots of their values and behaviours.

As you might recall, Boomers grew up in a world in which the common speech was “stability leads to progress” and the reality they’ve lived in was precisely this one. Yers, on the other hand, were born after the first ruptures in long-established institutions and received a different speech from their elders and media: one that stated “the world is chaos”. They’ve internalized this speech and adapted their behaviour to a world that was indeed in chaos.

Despite the fact those two worldviews are very different, they’re coherent. Generation X (the cohort born between 1965 and 1977) did not have this luxury. The speech they’ve heard from previous generations was that “stability leads to progress” but what they’ve encountered was “a world in chaos”: a world of unprecedented crisis, Aids and Chernobyl.

They’ve heard “family is sacred”, yet they’d be the first generation of “latchkey kids” to arrive from school to empty homes.

They’ve heard “a good education will land you a good job”, yet they’d be the first generation to experience massive unemployment of young graduates.

They’ve heard “pay your dues”, yet they’d be the ones to witness and suffer the first major layoffs, as the Oil Crisis hit the world.

Under this light it is not surprising to observe that the most common traits of this generation are scepticism, self-reliance, pragmatism and realism (one that is even more visible in comparison to the other two generations of idealists).

Far from reaching the homogeneity of the other two generations, Xers are described in terms of the myriad of diverging reactions to the incoherence of their time. In this case, the determining factors for a clear X-ray of Generation X are even more dependent on age (early Xers tend to behave more like Boomers and late Xers more like Yers), geography and local events (their formative years varying dramatically from region to region) and individual personality (more specifically in the optimism-pessimism spectrum).

In the business world, Xers can also be roughly divided between the “resigned” who play it safe waiting for their turn and the “rebels” who take the initiative to break traditional values.

The “resigned” are the ones who have often chosen careers of expertise and have climbed the corporate ladder as far as the “Boomers’ old boys” politics would allow. As they approach midlife and contemplate next steps in their careers, they grow increasingly frustrated with the Boomers refusal to retire and ubiquitous presence. Moreover, due to Yers unashamed ventures outside the chain of command and the parent-child transfer/counter-transfer between Boomers and their N-2 Yer employees, these Xers perceive a (real) threat of being short-circuited in future promotions. The result is a work environment embedded in the “zero-sum game” proper of Boomer corporate culture; a workplace in a clear generational divide, filled by anger and resentments.

The “rebels” are the ones who have understood the changes in corporate loyalty and have opted out for careers with better work-life balance. They’ve enhanced their survival skills acquired over the years and used it to design their careers in a pragmatic, “what if?”, entrepreneurial way. They’ve replaced the “pay your dues” mantra for “be a leader”.

Though we tend to often praise Yers for their demands on severe changes in work relations, it’s thanks to those Xers that we’ve seen over the last decades a rise in soft-skills training programs and new leadership paradigms. They’re the precursors of a movement that wouldn’t be possible without their valuable contribution, the same way Generation Y has a vital role in creating conditions for Generation Z to flourish (we’ll go over this subject on another occasion). In my next post I’ll share with you the 5 main leadership skills these Xers can teach future generations and why we’re in desperate need of them today.

The main organizational challenge of the next decade will certainly be the transformation of the generational divide currently present in many organizations into a true intergenerational collaboration. The success of this venture will guarantee the survival of our businesses and the adaptation to a changing and unpredictable world (in which an outdated management model solidified by the Baby Boomers no longer has its place).

As long as fear for the future dominates the relations we have with Generation X, this venture will fail. Also, as long as Xers hold a simple “trainer” role for the future generations (as opposed to coach and mentor), this venture will fail.

It is only when the dreams of the idealistic and young Generation Y meet the pragmatic leadership of Generation X that true change will occur.

Which other terms and values would you use to describe Generation X?

The broken “just-in-time” sourcing model

If you read newspapers and business blogs, there’s much being said about talent shortage in the midst of one of the largest unemployment crisis in the developed world (9% in US and hovering around 11% in Europe). How is this even possible? Are we living in an era of lack of talent or lack of recruiter’s flexibility?

 So what do businesses do when, in theory, skills becomes rare?

  • They work with local colleges to develop the necessary skills in their communities,
  • They put in place strong retention and development programs such as rotational traineeship
  • They multiply cheap “learning-on-the-job” solutions like cross-departmental projects
  • They focus on transgenerational mentoring programs to guarantee intellectual property is not lost and talent pipeline is filled
  • They train recruiters to hire on motivation and past achievements rather than experience,

Right? Wrong!

The pervasive “just in time” recruiting model is gaining immense popularity. According to Taleo, a talent management tool provider, 2 out of 3 vacancies in the US are now filled externally, whereas a generation ago external hires represented only 10% of vacancies. The fallacy behind this approach is that it allows businesses to find the precise workers needed, just at the time they’re needed and letting them go when needs change. It relies however in the opposite premise of recruiters’ main complaint: an unending “buyers’ market”.

In reality, this is an expensive and ineffective shortcut as external hires when compared to internal peers are paid in average 18% more, get promoted faster and take 3 years to attain the same performance levels (mostly due to the adaptation into the company’s culture). This is not taking into account the lost opportunities and sunk costs linked to months of search to find the perfect candidate.

Moreover, there are much more pervasive and damming consequences to this practice. After reading Peter Cappelli’s HBR article, I’ve summed some of the consequences of this broken model into a graph called the dramatic rose, composed of a macro-economic, an organizational and an individual “petals”.

Outside recruitment effect over Gen YFirst of all, “just-in-time” recruitment is outdated and unsustainable in a macro-economic level because it relies on previous experience rather than the potential to learn. Hiring exclusively on previous experience in a fast changing world (where new skills and roles are invented on a daily basis to fit specific business needs) is a dead-end solution. It is not by hiring people to do a job they already do (thus creating compartmentalization of business realms), nor encouraging individuals to job-hop that we’re going to solve serious economic and social crisis and nurture innovation.

A good example of the absurdity of this practice was a job interview I had a few months ago with a Belgium government agency. They were looking for a Knowledge Transfer Manager to prepare the retirement of their Boomers. With an endless list of pre-requisites filled, my recruiter was inflexible on the fact I did not have 5 years of experience in knowledge transfer. Despite my reminders that I had a 5 year-experience in cross-generational education, 4 years in project management, an understanding of Yers and above all a real passion for the challenge, she stood her ground and continued her search for the perfect candidate. I wonder how much longer she’ll look for a candidate to fill this impossible pre-requisite; given 5 years ago not a single Belgium business was facing a massive retirement wave to bother creating a knowledge transfer position.

Secondly, on an individual level this approach neglects human’s desire for change, interest in learning new things and it seriously disengages employees. Frozen by fear of being replaced or discouraged by top positions filled exclusively by external hires, employees will settle for the minimum service (especially Yers). Risks will be avoided and information will be hoarded in an attempt to obtain bargain power with the company. The organizational result is decline in innovation, loss of intellectual property as turnover increases and an even greater dependency on external hires.

At this point, the company will redirect their humble investments in learning and development to maintain an ever-growing bubble of recruitment and severance, reinforcing the tragic cycle.

Is this the fault of schools that didn’t teach well, of Yers that job-hop looking for meaning or of businesses that started to look outside of their ranks encouraged by the motto “if employers invest in their people, they will take the investment and leave”. Instead of searching for the one to blame, I encourage businesses to break the model and take a leap forward in faith (using the recommendations of the beginning of this post).

The principle of “Giver’s Gain” states that there are indeed a few takers in the world that will just leave, but those who will stay will return the investment tenfold in engagement, commitment and innovation. Are you ready to trust?

What’s your company’s main hiring practice? 

How has this practice influenced employee motivation? 

Meaning in 5 easy steps (II): The basics for Gen Y engagement

3) Work with your teams to determine the mission statement

So now you’ve established a culture of strategy-sharing in your organization. Top management has the much needed input from the field and all employees share their opinions and know where the company’s compass is pointing.

Armed with an organizational vision and a mid-term strategy, it is time to write the mission statements for the company and each team. The mission provides the path as how the vision will be achieved. In other to be sticky, the mission must generate clarity, focus, team effort, personal accountability and inspiration.

This is a time-consuming effort, but the return on investment is enormous! In order for this process to work, CEO must listen and engage everyone, managers must build their own mission statements with their teams and HR must coordinate efforts to obtain an aligned structure.

In a NY times article, Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat (the provider of Linux and other open-source technology), explains how he built his mission statement and the impact this decision had in his company.

We used it to create our mission statement. A lot of companies will either hire an external firm or have a management off-site meeting where, over a couple of good bottles of wine, 10 people do this. It took us five months to do our mission statement because we did it from the bottom up. We took in every idea. We had debates. We had work groups. It changed, and it was modified and tweaked. But by the time we finished, everybody — even if they don’t agree with it — knows our mission statement and the subtleties of every word.”

“… the best is getting people to believe what you want them to believe, and if people really fundamentally believe what you want them to believe, they will walk through walls. They will do anything. People certainly know what to think at Red Hat. We also believe in our open, transparent culture, and so everybody knows why we’re doing what we’re doing. So they will go around obstacles because they’ve bought in.”

4) Compile and revise job descriptions. Align them with mission statement

One mission statement that stuck to my mind is the HR mission statement of my first employer: “To have the right people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills.” Simple, yet so powerful, because it defines clear boundaries to the HR structure, often confusing in most organizations.

“Right people” means a structured performance appraisal system, recruitment and dismissal,

“Right place” means business partners that analyse roles and responsibilities (R&R) and match role needs with individuals skills and aspirations,

“Right time” means a structured career planning,

“Right skills” means training and development.

Once your vision and mission statements are done, managers and HR leaders must look to the people, for they are the ones that will drive the organization towards its vision. In reality though, a company has overlapping roles, unbalanced responsibilities, repeated positions across departments and roles created to fit political needs, so ask yourself some questions to guide the process:

  • Do individual R&R contribute towards the mission of the organization and the department?
  • Are there overlapping responsibilities and blind spots reducing ownership?
  • Are some responsibilities in the wrong department?
  • Are R&R public to everyone, allowing employees to go to the right person for assistance and creating a self-regulating environment?
  • Are employees using their R&R as a badge or a shield?
  • Are the best resources available to accomplish the tasks described in the R&R?
  • Is compensation aligned with R&R?
  • Are R&R nurturing synergy, teamwork and collaboration?
  • Do R&R create a culture of “doing things right” (precision) and “doing the right things” (latitude)?
  • Do you create a culture in which employees have a say about their R&R and priorities?

5) Revise and adapt

Once meaning and engagement is established through a clear vision and mission statement, a transparent strategy, aligned job descriptions and communication pathways, HR has the role to secure it.

Mission statements will change as market shifts. Strategy will be adapted as opportunities or threats arise. Leaders and employees will leave jobs and be replaced by others with a different skill set and aspirations. Technology in communication will improve, creating new channels for voices to be heard.

It’s therefore essential that the HR team is fully immersed in the only two stable elements of the equation: vision and culture. Through them, HR takes a new strategic role in ensuring at all time the organization has the “the right people, in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills”

If this post is to be successful, you’ve probably realized by now that there’s nothing easy about these 5 steps. It’s time-consuming and it challenges all managers to look into the way they’ve been leading the business for the past decades.

The reason I call those 5 steps “basic” is because they’re also non-negotiable when it comes to retaining Generation Y and inspiring all employees. As Yers fill more than 50% of the positions in the workplace (by 2013 in most developed countries) and social media creates an unbreakable bond between employee and client satisfaction, companies will have to create more space for purpose and meaning. Everything else we’ll share in this blog relies on the fact that this foundation exists.

How’s your company scoring in those 5 steps towards meaning?

How are you encouraging purpose within your team?

Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Generation Y Plans VS Dreams Recently I’ve come across a very interesting HBR article about the meaning of this question and career planning. “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is one of most heard questions in job interviews because it provides the interviewer with a false certainty of the applicant’s ambition level. In reality, it measures the applicant’s ability to say what’s expected of him.

To further apprehend the problem with this question, let’s take my own example:

-10 years ago, I was passionate about Math and living in Brazil. I was saving money to have my first and probably only trip to Europe. Less than a year later, I was joining an exchange program in France.

- 5 years ago, I was a high potential trainee within a global corporation. My desire was to work in production and make a quick ascending career. Less than 2 years later, I moved towards commercial projects, discovered a higher meaning in people management and moved to Belgium.

The truth is that my life has gone through a series of organic transformations. It hasn’t been linear and it never will. As a matter of fact, the long careers in a single company, the corporate ladder, the unshakeable family structure, the “offer-demand” equilibrium and the geographical stability are for a majority of us a thing of the past.

Generation Y careers are not shaped by plans, but dreams and passions

Yers have learnt that middle term plans are just guesses and that they reduce our flexibility to accept opportunities. While older generations struggle with the concept, Generation Y has fully embraced serendipity.

Moreover, they have the confidence and conviction that business is nothing like rocket science. To them, most positions can be filled by those willing to learn the ropes.

The lives of talented Yers are therefore marked by diverse and converging passions, a stronger awareness to opportunities and a drive to acquire the skills for the next step. For that reason, Yers career directions might seem illogical to the common recruiter, while holding enormous meaning for them.

Understanding Yers “life is organic” philosophy is the key to retaining them

Yers are not in search for promises of linearity and stability. Instead, they’re offering their talent, skills and original work ethics in exchange of support in their quest for purpose. Underlying the most surprising attitudes of Yers in the workplace hides this unwritten contract.

So the next time you’re in front of an applicant with a varied career path lift your judgments for a second and ask yourself which questions will best assess his chances for success. Forget about the 5-year career plan: don’t try to fit him into a broken mold!

Which question do you ask to best assess talent and potential?