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proposes a deeper look into some of the changes in work relations brought to light by Generation’s X refusal of an outdated management model and invites us to consider 5 Xers’ competencies that will help them lead organizations into the future.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?