Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dates Aren't Absolute, but They Matter

I am just back from the Great Ideas Conference, and I can report that the issue of generations is alive and well. Even before the conference started I was at the Executive Management Section Council meeting, and generational differences was the subject of a lengthy discussion that wasn't even on the agenda. I also noticed that ASAE's recent research about the economy frequently broke down answers to their questions by generation.

I haven't read the report fully, but when I glanced at it, I noticed that they described Millennials as those born after 1977. This was the same definition that I saw in the William E. Smith report on generations from a few years ago. The Smith report (if I remember correctly) had Baby Boomers as 1946-64 (18 years), Generation X 1965-76 (11 years) and Millennials as 1977-forever (currently up to 32 years!). 

These definitions root the generations in demographic data. That is, Boomers are people born literally during the boom in birth rates after World War Two, Generation X are born during the dip in birth rates after that, and Millennials are people born any time after that. I get that this is an objective justification for the cutoff dates (and I imagine quantitative researchers like objective parameters), but I don't think it really has anything to do with generations.

Generation X is different from Baby Boomers NOT simply because fewer babies were born during their birth years. That is one factor, but the primary difference is the fact that Generation X grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s, as opposed to the 1960s and early 1970s. If you were born in 1964, you pretty much missed "the sixties." You'll have early memories of them, of course, but your real coming of age was later. That's why you're Generation X (even if your birth year is part of the Boom). Of course don't forget that no matter what year a specific individual is born, it doesn't mean they MUST be like their generation.

I would love to see the quantitative research use generational dividing lines that are rooted in historical theory, rather than birth rates. I know it's not objective, but wouldn't it be interesting to see whether or not the data matched up with the theory?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Private-sector Boomers fulfilling their dreams in the social sector

Found this article in the Harvard Business Review interesting. Disaffected private-sector Boomers are making the switch and finding new purpose in their lives by transitioning to leadership positions in the social sector, sometimes with the help of their private-sector employers.

I guess you can forget everything I said about the impending leadership gap in associations and the opportunity it presents for change driven by GenXers. Looks like Boomers from the private sector are going to swoop in and keep everything humming along.

Generations and Job Loyalty

Okay, I, too want to read this "Daring to Lead" report after the teaser Eric just gave us. If I understand correctly the first paragraph that Eric quotes, the report is concerned because:

a. They feel nonprofits need committed and talented leaders, and
b. 75% of nonprofit execs don't think they'll be in the same job in 5 years.

What's the problem with that? Why is the second sentence contrary to the concept of committed and talented leaders? I think there may be some generationally-based assumptions going on there.

I understand the value, generally speaking, of employee loyalty. I think Fred Reichheld's work on loyalty (of employees, customers, and investors) is compelling. I certainly raise my eyebrows if someone comes to me and says they've had 125% turnover in the last year. But the leader at the top of the organization chart must intend to stay there more than 5 years? Even if you are arguing that companies need a certain consistency in their direction and culture, why do you assume that the transition of a single leader is necessarily going to lead to that?

Why can't nonprofit organizations grow and thrive by having committed and talented leaders in their top positions for three or four years at a time? If I am a committed and talented leader, I should know myself well enough to match my specific leadership competencies with the specific needs of the organization. It's quite possible that I will realize that they only need me for three or four years in that position. None of this rules out a leader staying with an organization for ten or twenty years. There's nothing to say the match can't last that long. Organizations and individuals can grow and change together. But I don't assume that staying ten or twenty years is synonymous with effectiveness, and I wonder if that is part of me being Gen X.

I don't remember where I first heard it, so I should probably do some research on this statistic, but I did hear that the Millennials are coming into the workforce expected to have four or five CAREERS during their working life. That's four or five different careers--not just four or five different jobs. Contrast this to just a few generations earlier where employees expected to get a job, work there for their career, and retire with a gold watch. This relates to the societal trend around the speed of change, so I am not surprised that each new generation has an even more "radical" expectation that the generation before about job or career tenures.

So pay attention to assumptions you make about how long people "should" or should not stay in particular jobs or careers. Sometimes it may be your generationally-specific assumptions talking, rather than a real understanding of the leadership needs of the situation.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Daring to Lead 2006

The Daring to Lead 2006 study recently caught my eye. It's a national study of nonprofit executive leadership completed as a joint project of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and The Meyer Foundation. It's opening paragraph says:

"For anyone who believes that committed and talented executive directors are critical to the success of nonprofit organizations, this report offers sobering news. Nearly 2,000 nonprofit executive directors in eight cities completed the survey for Daring to Lead 2006. Three quarters don't plan on being in their current jobs five years from now, and nine percent are currently in the process of leaving. Frustrations with boards of directors and institutional funders, lack of management and administrative support, and below-market compensation add stress to a role that can be challenging even in the best circumstances."

I plan to read the whole report and post some additional thoughts here, especially as I see them relating to the question of generational change in leadership in the nonprofit sector. If someone has already read the report, please let me know what you think of it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Join the Conversation

My favorite authors on generational issues are Strauss and Howe, and part of their theory about generations is that they flow in four-generation cycles. Within each cycle there are two "dominant" generations and two "recessive." Of the four generations in today's workforce (Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials), it is the Boomers and the Millennials who are the "dominant" ones. They also happen to be the two largest generations in American history, hence the "hourglass" metaphor in this blog. 

That's also why as two Gen Xers, we wanted to write this blog. I have learned that being part of a "recessive" generation you don't always get the attention. The "silent" generation  learned early on growing up during the depression and World War Two not to complain or buck the system. Generation X wasn't too quiet, per se, but we are quite small (which limits our voice) and as Jeff Gordinier said in a video I saw, "They have in impact, without needing to have a parade about it."

Quiet or not, however, we do have a voice. And we are interested in how leadership is evolving along with the major generational shift that is happening. As Eric pointed out, we want to start a dialogue about this topic, and we don't want to be the only ones talking. Like any blog, we welcome comments on what we talk about here, and if you want to do a guest post, let us know. Please join the conversation and help us shape the dialogue. 

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Why We Chose the Hourglass

Generation X is sometimes called the hourglass generation. Sandwiched between two much larger generations—the Baby Boomers and the Millennials—any population graph that includes all three generations invariably resembles an hourglass. Generation X forms the pinched waist in the middle.

So the shape of the hourglass is clearly relevant to our discussion about the impact of generational change on leadership in associations. But so, too, is the function of the hourglass. It measures time, and time is very relevant to our discussion. Its passing is one of the inexorable factors that is creating the change we're discussing and, like the sand in the hourglass, that time will eventually run out. And when it does, one leadership opportunity currently available to the hourglass generation will be forever lost.

Let me explain. I've read some articles about an impending leadership gap that will occur—sooner or later depending on the prevailing economic winds—when the Boomers who lead the majority of associations retire or otherwise move on. These articles have typically noted that since Generation X is so much smaller than the Baby Boom generation, a number of GenX association professionals may be poised for significant career advancement as associations go hunting for new leadership among a smaller pool of talent.

But a subject these articles invariably leave unexplored is what will happen when these Xers start bringing a new generational perspective to their new leadership positions—a perspective that is substantially different from the generational perspective that preceded it, especially with regard to organizational concepts as vision, loyalty, and work/life balance.

One question I would like to explore is whether or not this shift in generational perspective represents an opportunity to change the role and core functions of the associations that serve our society. Given the dramatic differences between the generations in question, it seems to me that the potential for change is equally dramatic—but only if Generation X recognizes the opportunity for what it is and does something that is particularly uncharacteristic for it.

To affect significant change, not just in their individual associations but in society at large, Generation X association leaders will have to come together to decide on their areas of common purpose, and then work collaboratively with one another to see that they are achieved.

And this brings me back to the hourglass. Generation X is pinched between two much larger and much more similar generations. If it squanders this leadership opportunity and allows the sand in the hourglass to run out, the generation that follows will simply turn the timepiece over, and Generation X will find itself once again in the middle. This time the Millennials will be above in the positions of leadership and the Boomers will be below as the great multitude to whom society is oriented.

It is not my intention to portray this potential future as a negative one. Given the generational and demographic forces at work, some might even call that future inevitable. But I am interested in starting a dialogue with GenX association professionals to see if they are willing to accept the leadership challenge that is confronting them and, if so, to explore the boundaries of change that our purposeful and collective action could bring about. The pinched middle of the hourglass is not necessarily a bad place to be, especially if we remember that it is the fulcrum on which the whole mechanism turns.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Why Another Blog?

We've seen a lot of information about generational change in the workplace. Much of it has been focused on the management and cultural issues surrounding the arrival of the Millennials, and another large segment on the career-ending or career-extending choices confronting the aging Baby Boomers.

The purpose of this blog is to explore issues related to a different aspect of these generational and demographic shifts—namely the impact they will have on leadership in our organizations. The focus will be primarily on leadership in professional and trade associations—at both the staff and Board levels—but we'll also touch on leadership in other organizations as relevant.

We invite you to join our conversations through regular reading and commenting on this blog, and hope you will find this interaction interesting. With your help, we hope to increase our community's understanding of these issues and better define the changes we're likely to see as new generational perspectives are incorporated into organizational leadership.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Meet Your Bloggers

Eric Lanke
Eric Lanke has been the Executive Director of the National Fluid Power Association since 2007, a trade association serving the hydraulic and pneumatic industries headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Prior to that he spent thirteen years with Executive Director, Inc., one of the largest association management companies in the country, working with professional medical societies like the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology and the American Academy of Emergency Medicine.

Jamie Notter
Jamie is Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness at Management Solutions Plus, an association management company located in Rockville, Maryland. He provides consulting services to associations in the areas of conflict, teams, leadership, and change and he also serves as the Executive Director of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry Metro DC Chapter. Jamie has been writing, speaking and consulting about generational issues for several years. He is the author of Generational Diversity in the Workplace: Hype Won't Get you Results.