More Answers to Your Questions, Gen X

Recently, Harvard Business Review, in collaboration with Right Management, sponsored a webinar during which I spoke about the characteristics that I believe will make the members of Generation X strong leaders for the decade ahead. We didn’t have time to get to all the questions that came in, so let’s begin a discussion of some of them here. I hope you’ll share your own views.

Characteristics of Gen X Outside the U.S.
You asked: Are the characteristics of the generation consistent, or do they vary by country? What about Gen X in Mexico? This concept seems to be completely foreign to our clients in the Middle East, Africa, and the Caribbean. What about X’ers in India, China, or Brazil?

The characteristics of a generation are heavily influenced by events that occur during its members’ formative years, roughly ages 11 to 14. Clearly, national, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and other differences have a big influence on the views and behaviors we each develop.

However, Gen X is the first generation for whom the global reach of technology began to allow a significant number of individuals to share experiences across national boundaries in many (but by no means all) parts of the world. As a result, I find many common themes among those born in the 1960s and 1970s (my definition of Generation X). Economic uncertainty and domestic social change were common themes in many countries. Latin American economies were experiencing persistent financial crises, and the economy in the United States and much of Europe was in the doldrums. Many of the most common names for this generation reflect the disenfranchisement that many X’ers share: “Crisis Generation” is the term often used in Latin America, “Génération Bof” (meaning “whatever”) in France, and “The Burnt Generation” in Iran.

Despite some shared experiences, it’s important to consider national influences that would have shaped unique views and assumptions. Here are two posts with additional information: one on India and another on China.

Managing Gen Y
You asked: I have a department of Millennials to manage. It is very challenging. They are very egocentric and seem to feel entitled. Their work ethic doesn’t seem as strong as the X’ers and Baby Boomers in our office. Do you have any sage advice on how to better handle and motivate Millennials?

As with all the generations, my basic advice is to look at the world through their eyes. The dominant adult conversation during Gen Y’s formative years was about terrorism — events that are unpredictable and can occur to anyone at any time. In other words, a world that is random. This sense of randomness is a critical element of Gen Y’s mental model. And, as a result, many have concluded that the best way to live is in the moment. Y’s were also reared in a very child-centric world, by Boomer parents who are devoted to assuring their success and who have reminded them at every turn that they can do anything they set their minds to. They are optimistic and confident.

It’s easy for this to come across to older colleagues as a poor work ethic, impatience, or an entitled attitude. But, in many ways, that’s beside the point. Y’s, like all of us, looked at external circumstances and formed logical conclusions about what was most important to them and how to live their lives.

So, what should you do? Here are some specific suggestions:

  1. Y’s want to feel they are doing work that is challenging and important.
    • Don’t over-specify how a task should be done; let them figure it out.
    • Take time to help them understand the context for their work, how it relates to the bigger picture.

  2. Y’s work habits are not the same as many older workers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they get less done.
    • Focus on the actual completion of tasks; hold them accountable for outcomes, not for time spent.
    • Embrace time shifting, asynchronous work, and flexible schedules.
    • Create a collaborative, team-based environment.

  3. Y’s use technology in new and interesting ways.
    • Develop your own technology skills, and experiment with new ways of doing things.
    • Leverage technology to create more efficient processes.
    • Communicate, particularly during the recruiting process, in Y-friendly ways.

  4. Y’s like their parents and are naturally comfortable with people their parents’ age.
    • Address parents as an explicit part of your recruiting strategy — create messaging aimed at parents, build awareness among parents as a great employer for young employees, and be prepared to address parents’ concerns.
    • Encourage the Boomers in your midst to mentor Y’s.

  5. The opportunity to learn is very important to Y’s.
    • Provide frequent feedback; first-line managers should teach rather than assess.
    • Redesign career paths to offer frequent, lateral moves — not necessarily up.
    • Provide a variety of world-class learning opportunities.

Baby Boomers
You asked: What is the definition of Baby Boomers? Boomers faced a number of unique and extraordinary events for their time frame. Why would Gen X be so different from Boomers?

I define Boomers as those born between about 1946 and 1960 (of course, no generational boundaries are hard and fast). Many people extend the definition to include those born through 1964, but I’ve found most individuals born between 1960 and 1964 do not identify with Boomers.

Yes, Boomers were also shaped by unique and extraordinary events, but those events were quite different from the events that shaped Gen X. And those differences lead to unique mental models and life views. Key Boomer influences included the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. These tended to shape a generation that set out to change the world, filled with idealism and ideas of better ways forward. The generation was also heavily shaped by its sheer size — because there were so many Boomers scrambling in an infrastructure that had not yet expanded to accommodate the generation’s size, competition was, for many, an essential part of success.

Learning from Boomers
You asked: How do we blend our strengths with the Boomers’ experience so we can be perceived as “ready” to make a smooth transition into leadership? How do we collaborate with Boomers and minimize their resistance to accept us as “equal partners” instead of threats?

This is an important question. You’re asking, How do you convince someone that you’ll do “it” well, even though you’ll do “it” differently. In many ways, that’s the challenge X’ers face: convincing Boomers that they’ll be great leaders, even though they will probably approach the role quite differently.

President Obama offers a useful model: His operating team comprises primarily X’ers, but his Cabinet is dominated by Boomers. He seems to rely on them for their experience and knowledge, as well as their relationships with other critical players. As you build your teams, I’d recommend that you adopt a similar way of thinking about partnering with Boomers — tapping their strengths.

If you’d like to listen to a recording of the webinar or see slides from the presentation, go here.

Go & see the original here, by Tammy Erickson @ Harvard Business Publishing