Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What's the Point of Your Exercise?

I found this great article put out by Harvard Business Publishing on things business schools should be teaching their graduates to help avoid another financial meltdown.

At least once per decade for the last 30 years we've seen American business go seriously off the rails. The reengineering fad, Mike Milken and junk bonds, the savings and loan crisis, the dotcom boom and bust, the Long Term Capital Management panic--only a partial, abbreviated history of business disasters--suggest that something systemic is wrong with the way business goes about business. An individual with this track record of crises would be a candidate for an intervention, a time out in a recovery center, and life-long participation in the 12-step program of their choice. Something is wrong--and it's time to face it.

The author then provides some advice for correcting the problem, beginning with teaching would-be executives to ask the last question first: what is the point of the exercise?

Jack Welch famously said it was to maximize shareholder value--a terrible answer in retrospect. Peter Drucker famously said it was to make and keep a customer. What is the answer that fits our situation in 2009, and beyond? Today, business schools need to teach students to ask the last question first--or risk taking their company down the old dead-end path.

I'm no MBA, but I find the question compelling. Do association execs ask themselves often enough what the point of their exercise is? Are they challenging themselves to make sure they are leading something they can believe in? I think we all know some who do and some who don't. But how will those answers change as fewer and fewer Boomers and more and more Xers find themselves in the positions to be asking the questions?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Generation X Has Ideals?

Another blog I've started following is The Gen X Files, written by Dave Sohigian. One of his recent posts caught my eye, debunking seven myths about Generation X.

He goes through the usual litany—we are slackers, we are selfish, we are cynical, we hate our parents—admiriably defending X's unique point of view throughout. But one myth and Dave's response to it really spoke to me:

We have no ideals
We grew up surrounded by talk about ideals, so yeah, we are a bit tired of talking about them. Our generation wants to know how we can realistically change society for the better. We don’t see missing the ideal state as a failure and are willing to compromise ideology for practicality. But that does not mean we don’t have ideals.

I think Dave really hits the nail on the head. Most Xers I know really do want to change society for the better. And most of them are too practical to try and attempt it in any but the smallest ways. That's at least how I've always felt.

But ideals? Dave says we have them, I'm not so sure. If we were to create a list of Generation X ideals, how long would it be? The Free Dictionary says an ideal is a "conception of something in its absolute perfection." Do Xers even believe in absolute perfection?

Anyone got any nominations for the ideals of Generation X?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Getting Younger Members on Boards

Jeff De Cagna was kind enough to point me to a report done by the reputable organization, BoardSource, that describes the results of some research they did on how to engage the talents of Generations X and Y on nonprofit Boards. I’m a bit flummoxed by the whole thing. I’ll give you some actual quotes from the report, sprinkled with my commentary. I apologize in advance for the sarcasm, but honestly this whole thing is just a bit odd to me.

They want to “stimulate thinking and action among nonprofits regarding the roles they can play to engage Generations X (born 1965-1979) and Y (born 1980-2000) in good governance.”

[okay, I’m already annoyed because they did that silly Generation X is only 14 years for no good reason thing, but they’re not alone in that. I can let it slide.]

So to do that, they interview 50 Nonprofit Chief Executives and Senior staff leaders

[Who are likely to be overwhelmingly Boomers. Right? Does this sound weird to you?]

Here are some of their findings:

BoardSource learned that younger board members view board experience as synonymous with leadership development, so spearheading committees, setting fundraising goals, and measuring progress against those goals are common ways that organizations benefit from their zeal.

[Ummmm. You learned that younger board members like doing things, and that this can benefit your organization? Wow. Stop the presses. Also note that they learned this about young people by asking 50 old people.]

Generations X and Y want to be involved in meaningful work, not busy work.

[As opposed to Boomers and Silent generation who really despise meaningful work and will always choose busy work?]

The also asked these senior leaders what might be holding the Boards back from bringing in younger members:

Some interviewees say that they do not know where to find prospective Generation X and Y board members. Their boards comprise mostly Baby Boomers, who tend to recruit other Baby Boomers.

[Walk down the hall!!!! Generation X is something like 40% of the workforce.]

Chief executives express concerns that a solitary Generation X or Y board member might not fit in with other members of the board and feel isolated.

More specifically:

Generations X and Y board members typically have a perspective that differs from older board members, who, if feeling challenged, may single out that perspective and demand that it be justified.

[Okay, we don’t bring on Gen X and Y because we’re afraid they won’t fit in and would be isolated. Of course the existing older board members apparently don’t like to feel challenged ever, so they single out opposing voices and demand they justify themselves. Did the people who gave these answers hear themselves talking?]

Here’s another gem:

Board members unaccustomed to constructive debate can view younger board members as an aggravation, especially when the younger members’ views challenge the status-quo and the consequence of debate might be a loss of respect for each other’s opinions.

[If your Board cant’ handle debate or anything that challenges the status quo, you’ve got much bigger fish to fry than attracting Gen X and Gen Y.]

[So what do these younger folks need to be successful on the Board? Better communication skills:]

Interviewees tell us that technology is not always the best way to show personal sentiments. To add a more personal touch, they recommend younger board leaders pick up the phone and talk to fellow board members, meet face-to-face, and consider using pen and paper to draft thank-you letters.

[And they also need to work on their “teambuilding”:]

Interviewees note that younger generations must be able to look beyond their own piece of the work and care about the board's overall work. When joining a board committee, interviewees suggest younger members ask, “What contribution can I make to help the team succeed” rather than say, "I'll be on the team, but let me do my piece by myself.”

[In other words, in order to be successful on these boards, young people, it’s really important that you act more like Baby Boomers.]

Sorry for the rant, but I find articles and reports like this tend to take us AWAY from where we need to go. They are structured around generational differences yet don't particularly reveal a nuanced understanding of generational differences, and the interviews are done of a homogenous group. The results are predictable and don't really further any interesting dialogue or new sets of questions. I think we need to do better.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Graduate School for Millennials

I was really inspired by this post on Seth Godin's blog. If you're not following Seth's blog, I would suggest trying it for a few weeks. This one is about things recent college grads can do to bolster their chances of getting hired in this tough employment market. Like a lot of Seth's ideas, they're pretty bold and in your face. He advises:

How about a post-graduate year doing some combination of the following (not just one, how about all):

1. Spend twenty hours a week running a project for a non-profit.
2. Teach yourself Java, HTML, Flash, PHP and SQL. Not a little, but mastery.

3. Volunteer to coach or assistant coach a kids sports team.
4. Start, run and grow an online community.
5. Give a speech a week to local organizations.
6. Write a regular newsletter or blog about an industry you care about.
7. Learn a foreign language fluently.
8. Write three detailed business plans for projects in the industry you care about.
9. Self-publish a book.
10. Run a marathon.

Beats law school.

If you wake up every morning at 6, give up TV and treat this list like a job, you'll have no trouble accomplishing everything on it. Everything! When you do, what happens to your job prospects?

I tried to imagine myself doing these things when I was 22 and fresh out of college. Heck, I tried to imagine myself even having the presence of mind to imagine doing these things when I was 22 and fresh out of college. Some of them were just not possible (did Java even exist in 1990?), and others would have been a whole lot more difficult than they are today (self-publishing a book, etc.). But I certainly could have done some of them and they undoubtedly would have made me more employable.

And that got me thinking about the people graduating from college today. Sure, they've got more tools at their disposal to do some of the things on Seth's list, but I also suspect that they have more presence of mind about promoting themselves and their brand than I did at their age. Am I crazy, or is this one of those things that makes me think the Millennials are going to run over the GenXers when the two groups start competing for the leadership positions vacated by Baby Boomers?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Twitter and Generation X

I came across a truly stupendous post about Twitter and Generation X from @JessieX. She says that Twitter has Generation X "written all over it." Her argument? Generation X grew up behind a "culturally dominant" Boomer generation, and find it hard to get a footing in the public sphere. Twitter, then, is perfect for us:

So, Twitter, as a tool, is microblogging. Right? It’s small bits. Gaps. Niches. Finding a very small space that requires no specific authority-granted position from which to speak. Finding a small space to insert a comment, a bit of information, a link to some potentially helpful info. Finding a small space from which to broadcast, engage, connect.

Read the whole post, because she also talks about why Millennials aren't flocking to Twitter as much, despite being a generation that is so comfortable with technology. 

From a leadership perspective, I think this all fits with my last "Center of Gravity" post. You don't need to be the center of attention in order to be a leader.