Monday, April 12, 2010

Tammy Erickson Offers Career Advice for Generation X

Last week Tammy Erickson hosted an "Ask the Expert" forum on the Harvard Business Review's Answer Exchange. The topic, as advertised in this announcement was "Career Advice for Generation X.

Well, I was out all last week on a family vacation and knew I wouldn't have easy access to the web or the ensuing online discussion, but before I left I managed to post this question in the appropriate place on the HBR site:

I've heard you speak on Generation X's leadership potential--on the skills and perspectives its members have developed through their formative years and the first part of their professional lives--and about how those talents may be what's needed to pull us through the "Fourth Turning" that generation experts like Neil Howe describe as upon us. The stereotype of Xers, however, is skeptical of their leadership potential and their willingness to engage in broader causes. Also, our society's demographics seem stacked against GenX, with the much larger Boomer generation hanging on to leadership positions and the equally large Millennial generation already knocking at the door. If you still believe that GenX has the leadership traits needed to reimagine our organizations and take them to a new prosperity--what advice would you offer to GenX leaders who seek a larger role for themselves and their generation? What strengths must they learn to better leverage? What weaknesses must they learn to overcome? I blog regularly on these issues at The Hourglass Blog and would love to share your insight with my readers.

Well, imagine my surprise when I returned today and found the following answer from Erickson in the HBR Answer Exchange:

Dear Eric,

You're right. I do feel, based on hundreds of interviews with members of Generation X, that many X'ers have skills and perspectives that are well-suited to today's leadership challenges. I've written an article that will appear in an upcoming issue of HBR summarizing the research that lead me to this conclusion.

I do recognize that it's a bit of a contrarian view--not what many Boomers believe and even, as you point out, not necessarily what all X'ers anticipate. Let me try to address the themes of your great question, one-by-one.

Are X'ers skeptical of their leadership potential? Not exactly. I would say X'ers tend to find the type of leadership that has been commonly practiced in many organizations uncomfortable. And many simply are not interested in taking on executive roles. As one X'er commented to me: "Xers will never get to leadership positions because we have no ability or desire to tell others what to do." However, I am convinced that the requirements for successful leadership are changing in ways that will align more closely with X'ers' preferences and styles.

Are the demographics stacked against X'ers, with Boomers hanging on to leadership positions? Maybe, but I doubt it. There has been a lot of discussion about Boomers working longer. However, from my research, few Boomers want to continue working as intensively as they have over the past several decades. Most are looking for ways to ease off a bit, while continuing to earn some income. And, of course, the Boomers who are holding leadership positions today are the ones who are least likely to need to continue working for economic reasons. As a result, I do think that the leadership positions will open up. Over the next five years, I expect we will see opportunities in many companies for transitions from Boomer to X'er leadership.

My bottom line advice to X'ers is to trust in themselves. Believe that the perspectives and inclinations they have are indeed the ones their organizations need--avoid feeling the need to imitate the Boomers. My goal in writing What's Next, Gen X? was to offer specific advice on making the most of your work experience and, for those who choose to take on leadership roles, to leverage X'er skills effectively--for those wanting more detail, I hope you'll find it a useful guide.



I don't know if Erickson is still monitoring the forum, but I responded with a follow-up comment regarding what I perceive as the unique challenge facing GenX leaders in the association and non-profit sector. Given all the apparent focus on helping those Boomers who want to "ease off a bit while continuing to earn some income" move from the for-profit to the non-profit sector, I wonder how helpful her advice to not try and emulate the Boomer leadership model will be for us.

She predicts that for-profit leadership positions will begin to open up for GenX over the next five years, but that sounds suspiciously like what the experts were saying five years ago. Then it was the economy and the destruction of their ill-tended nest eggs that was preventing Boomers from retiring. Now its a wave of "Encore Careers" moving for-profit Boomer leaders into non-profit leadership positions so that they can continue to self-actualize themselves and keep "making a difference." Those factors, combined with GenX's apparent aversion to traditional notions of leadership, threaten to keep GenX out of nonprofit leadership positions for much longer than Erickson may think.


Tamara said...

Hi Eric --

Again, an excellent point. I do think that many Boomers are eager to take on leadership roles in nonprofit organizations. Whether they will or not, given the rigorous demands of these positions, will be interesting to see, but I agree that many Boomers are looking in that direction.

You have correctly clarified that my comments re leadership positions opening up were primarily focused on roles in for-profit corporations.

BTW, 5 years ago, no Boomers were even of "retirement" age. I'm not sure why anyone would have been predicting a large scale turnover of roles at that time. So, I'd encourage you not to discount my projection today based on what was (I think) a very unlikely prediction of the past. :)

Best regards,


Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for the follow-up, Tammy. Generational trends in leadership for the association and nonprofit community are a primary focus of this blog, but a lot of the information I react to comes from sources in the for-profit world (like you and other folks at Harvard Business Review).

I'd be interested in your take on what I've described in another post as "Doing Good is the New Measure of Success" ( Umair Haque and others seem to be strong proponents of this idea--that for-profit companies, inspired partly by the rising of the Millinneal generation--are embracing socially-conscious missions and practices as a better way of doing business. If true, I think this will put even more strain on nonprofit leadership, as more and more for-profits attract the talent necessary for social change. What are your thoughts?

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