Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Stimulating Work? What's That?

Recently caught this post from Sylvia Ann Hewitt. In it, she references some research she's doing for a new book, Top Talent: Keeping Performance Up When Business Is Down. She says that the number one reason that talented people love their jobs--far outstripping compensation and recognition--is having stimulating and challenging assignments. To help prove her point, she adds:

This finding is backed up by our investigation into the commonalities between Boomer and Gen Y workers: Both groups--who together make up 148 million people, or nearly half of the U.S. population--overwhelmingly want their jobs to provide challenging and diverse opportunities to grow both personally and professionally.

I wonder what her research told her about GenX workers? Perhaps that we overwhelmingly want our jobs to provide simple and repetitive tasks so we can grow stagnant and ossify.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cross-Generational Leadership

The other thing I wanted to comment on from Jamie free e-book, Generational Diversity in the Workplace: Hype Won't Get You Results, is a point he makes near the end.

So what impact will Generation X have on leadership? It is not that simple any more. Part of what we need to rethink here is the notion of a linear progression of leadership models that each generation introduces, fighting the battle with the generation that preceded them. Today's leadership model will change (and that change will encounter resistance), but I expect the new model will beging to be developed more cross-generationally. The function of leadership does not exist solely at the top of the hierarchy, which means that leadership is, by definition, the responsibility of multiple generations. Conversations about new leadership models, therefore, are more likely to involve multiple generations than in years past.

This trend will be reinforced by the demographics as well. Generation X is a relatively small generation, sandwiched between the two largest generations in American history. It seems unlikely that they will take over leadership positions, or the spots on the Boards of Directors in a dominating way. The Boomers will likeky stay longer than in previous generations, and the Millennials will likely be moving more quickly into those positions. With three generations sharing leadership positions, it is certain that a new model will emerge--one that will likely challenge the vales and assumptions of all three generations.

Apologies for quoting such a long segment, but I think it neatly summarizes a lot of what we've been talking about here on Hourglass. Much of the blogosphere seems convinced that, when it comes to generations and leadership, there is only one narrative worth following:

The Boomers, given their changing financial needs brought on by the Great Recession and their natural tendency to actualize themselves through a tireless devotion to their work, will hang on to their existing leadership positions longer than most previous generations, and will even move into new leadership positions in the nonprofit world in order to better satisfy their legacy needs. When they are ready to hand over the reins, it will be to the Millennials, who are being dubbed "The Crucible Generation" by such luminaries as Warren Bennis, for their entrepreneurial vision and commitment to social responsibility.

I like Jamie's vision better. Leadership is not a mantle that is passed from one generation to the next like a baton. It is a system that exists within an organization that needs to find ways to self-perpetuate itself in order to ensure that the values and goals of the organization--which are larger than any one generation--continue to be held and advance.

I'm fascinated by the idea of the three generations--Boomers, Xers and Millennials--working together to fashion a new system of leadership for the organizations that need to be preserved, especially through the great financial crisis we are all facing. As I explored in last week's post, don't they all have something to contribute to that system, something unique that will make it stronger and more sustainable than any system based on any one generation's ideals, or any system based on the outdated idea of passing the baton from one generation to the next?

Friday, November 13, 2009

Generational Diversity in Ten Minutes

That was my challenge on Monday as I spoke to the American Hotel and Lodging Association. I was part of a round table session and I had to do a ten minute presentation on generational diversity for each table.

I gave them all a copy of my ebook as a handout, so I knew I could refer to that for the more detailed information, but it was still a challenge to come up with points that I could make in about five or six minutes (so they’d have a few minutes to ask questions). Here’s what I came up with.

1. Beware the Hype

I think this is getting better, but there’s a lot of hype on this topic ( a few years ago it was really bad). Hype takes generalizations and uses them in the service of ostracizing a particular group. It belittles them and makes them the problem. If you’re speaking to a group of Gen Xers you might get hype about how Boomers are self indulgent or made you sing kumbaya at the staff retreat. If you’re talking to Boomers, you’ll hear about how Gen X are disrespectful slackers or Millennials are helpless and need their meat cut for them. This stuff doesn’t help.

2. Learn the Theory

Sorry, but you need some theory to combat the hype. There are four generations in the workplace today, but they were formed by significant, long-term, social, political, and economic trends (not just the random dates that the researcher picked). It pays to understand those big picture trends, because then you can distinguish the difference between a real generational difference versus a life-stage difference. The best source for theory is Strauss and Howe’s book in my opinion.

3. We are guessing about Millennials.

It’s interesting that the generation that I am most often asked to speak about (Millennials, Gen Y, the net-generation, etc.) is the one we know the least about. We are writing articles about them and how they act and why they act that way, and I just have to emphasize to everyone that these are complete guesses about what drives this generation. You can’t come to a firm conclusion until you see them across a couple of different life stages. That doesn’t mean we should stop guessing of course—the conversation is useful—but take all that conversation with a grain of salt. My guess? I see four trends as having the biggest impact on this generation as they are coming of age: the social internet, abundance, diversity, and child-focus.

4. So What?

Whatever you learn about generational differences, always add the “so what?” question at the end. Applying knowledge of generational differences is very tricky. It hardly ever gives you clear answers about what to do, but it can be a useful guide to your conversations with your stakeholders about what you all should do. So be disciplined as you move forward on this topic and don’t fall into the traps of hype or oversimplification.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Generational Fuzziness

Jamie recently made his e-book, Generational Diversity in the Workplace: Hype Won’t Get You Results, free for the asking. Well, I finally got around to reading it, and I have to say, had I known it was such an interesting read, I would’ve bought it when it was available for sale. Jamie, tell you what, if we ever meet in person, I’ll buy you dinner. (I owe you for a few other things, anyway.)

Jamie hits a couple of core themes that we’ve referred to before on Hourglass and probably will again. The first is the fuzziness of the generations themselves.

Some generational theorists have hard definitions for when the generations begin and end—based on population trends that appear in birth records. They say Baby Boomers are Baby Boomers because they were born during the baby boom after the GIs returned from World War II. Therefore, Baby Boomers started being born in 1946. No exceptions.

Well, Jamie disagrees. And so do his muses, William Strauss and Neil Howe. They all say the generations are defined by the broad social context that exists while individuals in that group “come of age,” and set their values. Growing up during the 1960s was a much different experience than growing up during the 1980s, and that’s why Boomers and Xers are different, not because they were born in different years.

The other fuzzy factor Jamie wants us to keep in mind is the concept of life stage. Not only are the generations different because of what was going on in the world while they were coming of age, those same events impact each generation differently because they are all at different stages of life when they occur. A generation, in other words, isn’t carved in stone after its formative experiences. Their values may be sort of baked into them by the social context of their coming of age, but they will evolve and react differently to each successive generation’s social context as they progress through the natural stages of life.

Jamie says he doesn’t like charts that summarize the generations because they overly simplify the complex, and are often taken out of context, but when it comes to the impact of these life stages, I couldn’t fully wrap my head around the idea until I created this chart:
It’s rough and contains sweeping generalizations, but it helps me think about generations and leadership. Right now we have three generations in the workforce. Some say four and a few are saying we’ll soon see five, but let’s limit it to three for the time being.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the “Great Recession” is one of those vast social contexts that will shape the generation currently coming of age. We don’t yet know who they are or what it’s going to do to them, but we can say a few things about the generations already in the workforce and how they may react to it based both on the social context that existed when they came of age and the current stage of life they find themselves at now.

(Hold on to your hats, folks. If I thought I was going out on a limb before, I’m really crawling out onto the skinny branches with this foray into armchair generational analysis!)

Formative social context
– The safety and conformity of great economic prosperity fuels a youthful rebellion that yearns to define the individual as transcendent to what is perceived as the autonomic and soulless culture.
Life stage now – Maturity. Ending their careers and looking forward to retirement.
Leadership perspective for dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession – “We’re doomed! How can I deal with this thing and still actualize myself? Do I need to start a social movement?”

Formative social context
– The rise of the individual over the collective needs of society gives way to social unrest, cults of false personality, and character corruption in leadership, breeding a deep cynicism in the power of the individual to affect real change.
Life stage now – Middle age. Seeking to define themselves as leaders.
Leadership perspective for dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession – “Well, they screwed it up again. Guess I need to keep watching out for myself. But wait a minute, as long as the pieces need to be put back together, can’t we do it in ways that make more sense? Is anyone listening?”

Formative social context
– A tired cynicism turns cantankerous and gives way to a resurgence of individual empowerment, fueled by expanding social technologies that connect people and ideas.
Life stage now – Young adulthood. Entering the workforce.
Leadership perspective for dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession – “WTF? I can’t get anyone to hire me. Oh, well. I still matter to all my friends on Facebook. Anyone want to start a socially conscious company with me?”

Three generations formed by three different social contexts. But in predicting how they each will choose to lead in our current environment, you have to take into account their stage of life. It’s part of what makes this discipline so fuzzy and difficult to pin down.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Xers Can't Just Quit

Neil Howe's Lifecourse Blog has recently been pointing out items in the blogosphere that seem to be predicting the end of our world. Check out:

Death of 'Soul of Capitalism', where Paul B. Farrell of Marketwatch details 20 reasons why America has lost its soul and its collapse is now inevitable. Or:

American Pie and the Seasons of History, where Jim Quinn of The Burning Platform shows how our unavoidable downfall is eeriely foretold in the lyrics of Don McLean's cryptic classic, American Pie.

Like Howe, I've also been stumbling into more items that seem to be carrying the same water, most recently The US in GM, where Tom Davenport on the Harvard Business Publishing blog sees the same bitter demise for the United States that has befallen General Motors, and for many of the same reasons.

What's going on here? Howe says it's all part of something he calls The Fourth Turning, one of four natural and cyclical periods of history, driven by the interconnected waxing and waning of his four generational archtypes--Artists, Prophets, Nomads and Heroes. In The Fourth Turning:

A Crisis arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.

According to Howe, this has happened again and again in world history. We are now entering just the latest incarnation, where the old Artists are disappearing (Silents), Prophets are entering elderhood (Boomers), Nomads are entering midlife (Xers), Heroes are entering young adulthood (Millennials), and a new generation of Artists are being born (a generation, as yet, unnamed).

Essentially, the Boomers are freaking out because their world is changing in ways they don't understand, and rather than try to make sense of it, they're throwing up their hands and saying we're all doomed. In many ways, it reminds me of something I heard several Silents and Boomers say upon the election of Barack Obama--that they didn't feel like they were living in the same country they had grown up in.

A few of my recent posts (here and here) have dealt with the speculative issue of Xers "quitting"--giving up trying to lead organizations constructed out of Boomer building blocks and striking out on their own to create new organizations with a decidedly Xer vibe. But reading all this doom and gloom from the Boomers has me wondering if it isn't the Boomers who will be "quitting", leaving the Xers and the following generations behind to reassemble those blocks in better functioning ways.

As a point of comparison, check out these two items, which seem to deal with the same "fourth turning" issue, but from a distinctly Xer perspective.

The first is from Seth Godin, who sees opportunity in this world of crumbling institutions. The establishment doesn't like it when it can no longer tell who is and who isn't a journalist, or an entrepreneur, but Godin does.

The second is from Steven DeMaio, the blogger who inspired me to write my first post about Xers quitting. He describes the new era we're entering as one of permanent uncertainty, and has advice for how to deal with it.

The reaction of most people has been to ignore these realities, as they can be depressing to contemplate. A smaller but substantial number of folks are overreacting; I know several educated professionals, for example, who are buying guns, hoarding antibiotics, or stockpiling gold coins. I find both types of responses--denial on the one hand, paranoia on the other--to be chilling. But instead of merely dismissing them as immoderate, I'd rather figure out a way to bring both sides toward the middle.

The extreme responses of inaction and paranoia cannot be moderated for more than a very short time by frequent use of the word "hope" and calmly delivered advice not to panic, important as those elements are. A more practical approach is to acknowledge plainly and openly that crisis is here to stay and that living with it day in and day out need not feel like doom. The responsibility for initiating such conversations belongs, in part, to leaders in government, business, and elsewhere, but it also belongs to average folks--both are navigating these rough waters.

I agree. And who is more likely to start those conversations? The Boomers who see the sky falling on their heads, or the Xers whose job it will necessarily be to pick up the pieces and create some new constellations?