Many of us face the challenges of leading a multi-generational workforce, and I constantly hear colleagues bemoan the fact that these “kids” don’t get it – Where is the drive? They can’t seem to get to work on time! Don’t they own a suit?
My aha moment came when an employee informed me he thought my direction wasn’t a very good idea so he wasn’t going to do it. My first reaction was to think “How dare he!” But, he then went on to tell me why he thought another path might be a better approach. He was right. It was my first encounter with an employee who expected to get a vote in decisions being made in the company and the beginning of my evolution of learning how to effectively lead people with different motives, values and expectations from mine.
I recognized right away that the workforce was not going to change to be like me (there were a lot more of them), so I had to change to connect with them. My advice to other leaders is to accept that your workforce is not going to adapt to your way of doing things and that your future success requires you to adapt to them.
Many of us get a taste of this phenomenon raising teenagers, each parent generation thinks the world will come to an end when their kids grow up to lead the world. But, somehow they grow up to be responsible people with their unique slant on how things should be done – usually a more enlightened one. Parents of my generation were horrified with the Beatles, aghast when we challenged their social norms regarding sex and drugs, outraged when we joined marches for civil rights and women’s rights, and angered when we spoke out against the Vietnam War. Now we Baby Boomers are largely in charge of most businesses today. But we have been overtaken in the workforce at large by Gen X and Gen Y (i.e. millennials).
Gone are the days when rewards and recognition were based on advancement potential and unfailing commitment to the job – some employees today don’t want to climb the corporate ladder nor are they willing to make the personal sacrifices many of us made. Now it is more about team accomplishments, value contribution to the task and effective work-life integration. Everything needs to be rethought and redesigned to get the most out of every employee and it isn’t all about money. Working in teams, encouraging collaboration, embracing diversity and flexibility require rethinking how you design your reward systems, work spaces, work methods and work time. If you still think the best way to promote and communicate a campaign in the company is to cascade a PowerPoint presentation through the management ranks, you are doomed. Save the PowerPoint for the technology impaired and focus on blogs, Twitter, YouTube and webcasts.
Better yet, engage your workforce and ask what works for them. Encourage self-directed work teams and ask Gen X and Y employees to “reverse mentor” the baby boomers, and you’ll learn a lot about what they like in your company that will make them stay and what they dislike that will make them leave. Reframe your objectives from what needs to be done to why it needs to be done, inspiration is a powerful motivator. Don’t be a dinosaur: make sure you know how to use the latest tools and technology and engage with your employees this way.
Most of all accept that these “kids” are the future, they are smarter in many ways than we are. I am hopeful they will lead in a way that is more collaborative, diverse, committed to making an impact, and enlightened about saving our environment. So the next time you begin to grumble about the X, Y or soon to be Z employees and how they don’t get it, remind yourself that, “It’s not them, it’s me.”