Sunday, October 3, 2010

The "IF" Generation

I recently listened to a webcast sponsored by the Harvard Business Review where Tammy Erickson discussed "The Leaders We Need Now: Are We Ready for Gen X to Take Charge?" It's all part of pitching her new book, What's Next, Gen X?, which I've not yet read.

I've talked about Tammy Erickson here before. I generally find her to be one of the more positive voices about Generation X and its leadership capabilities. Indeed, Erickson's thesis is that Generation X, because of its formative experiences in the 1980s, has a unique set of leadership traits that are precisely what organizations need today to see them through the difficulties many of them are facing.

This is a theme she continues in the webcast. I don't remember if this is a phrase she actually used, but I came away from her comments thinking of Generation X as the "IF" Generation--a group of self-reliant option seekers who habitually explore multiple strategies and go with what works rather than what is idealogically determined. In other words, "if" something bad happens, the Xer leader will naturally have (or seek) multiple options for moving forward, whereas leaders from older generations may be more rigidly constrained.

There wasn't much time for questions on the webcast, so Erickson responded to some in a couple of posts on the HBR blog (here and here). Given the thesis she has laid out, here's the one I found most interesting:

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.

Can the experience of Boomers be blended with the option-seeking leadership style of Xers? From the Xer perspective, I would say yes. Leveraging Boomer knowledge and experience can provide Xers with lots of options "if" things go wrong. But from the Boomer perspective, I think the question is more problematic. I think many Boomers still view members of the "IF" Generation as not equipped for the challenge of leadership, and view the option-seeking that Erickson describes as evidence of a wishy-washy demeanor and an inability to make a decision and stick with it.

I've already done more generational generalizing than I know some of my readers are comfortable with, but it's almost as if your typcial Boomer believes there is always one best solution to every problem and it's the job of the leader to find it, while your typcial Xer believes there are often multiple solutions and it's the job of the leader to keep as many of them in play as possible.

If that's an accurate description, is it any wonder that Boomers are less accepting of Xers than Xers are of Boomers?


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