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Generational Differences

On a recent plane trip I was seated with a couple and their twin toddlers. Although most people would dread this seating arrangement, my family has caused our fair share of travel drama in the past, so I believe I have a responsibility to help new parents in any way that I can, even if it is through simple reassurance and encouragement.

During the course of our flight, the mother, whom I will call Clara, shared that both she and her husband were entrepreneurs. The two of them had been quite successful as a team and had postponed the opportunity to have children until later in their lives. Like many parents who have taken that path, Clara and her husband had difficulty conceiving and spent a great deal of time and resources before they celebrated the arrival of their twins. During the early years of the twins’ lives, Clara decreased her professional work and focused on her family.

Recently, Clara had returned to the workplace and was struggling with a group of new employees. Keep in mind that Clara is an accomplished individual who attended an excellent university and had worked tirelessly with her husband to build not one but several companies. Clara’s method of balancing her life was to put all of her energy into work during the day, and then to switch focus and put all of her energy into her children in the evenings—giving 100% to the objects of her focus. Clara’s new employees seemed to operate in a completely different manner—always on their smartphones interfacing with their friends. From Clara’s perspective, this meant that they were not paying attention to her, her orders or the tasks at hand. As a result, Clara created clear rules for her employees to follow. However, instead of paying more attention to her, they seemed even more indifferent to her efforts. At one point, Clara learned that the team had ignored a deadline for a major client. When questioned about the issue, the team appeared apathetic. Just before she departed for this trip, Clara said that she had made an edict: no more electronic devices during company time. She had also handed out yellow legal tablets and pens to everyone and mandated, “This is how you will take notes from now on.”

This confrontation may sound harsh, but Clara is not an evil person. In fact, she cares deeply for her company and wants it to succeed. To be fair, I imagine that her employees are not evil people either. What is happening in this situation is that Clara and her team are caught in a generational trap.

In today’s workforce, there are 3 major generations at work: Boomers, Gen Xer’s and Millennials. As an Xer myself, I know that we Xer’s feel that we have grown up in the boomers’ shadows and have spent much time obsessing, complaining about or working around the boomers. For Clara, something interesting happened to her—while she, an Xer, was away from the workforce, millennials entered her company. Clara has a strong and focused work ethic, and she expects others to have and display the same ethic. She also expects her team to follow her simply because she is the boss. What she did not understand is that among millennials, you must have strong influence to lead them; relying on authority alone is not sufficient. Furthermore, Clara’s “my way or the highway” strategy is generally not successful with the entire generation of Xers.

As Clara and I talked more about the challenge of building effective teams and the nature of generational differences, I could read the frustrated questions on her face: why won’t people just do what I tell them to do, and why do I have to change my approach to get the results I want?

There are several important answers to Clara’s questions, all of which we communicate clearly through our teachings at InitiativeOne:

1) Leaders assume 100% responsibility for their teams. This does not mean that they take undeserved blame or allow people to abuse them, but they should continually seek methods to improve situations, even if they had nothing to do with a situation’s origins. As a leader, it is Clara’s responsibility to improve her leadership techniques, as well as understand her team’s learning and work style. As she progresses, she will see that building high performance teams is challenging yet ultimately rewarding.

2) Leadership today is about influence, not authority. Unless you find yourself as part of an emergency crisis, authority will only achieve a minimum amount of desired results. Clara must develop her influence so that her team will want to follow her, as opposed to being obligated to follow her. Understanding the true mindset of her team will be culture shaping for her leadership and her organization.

3) Balance is essential. Work, family, personal, spiritual, community and emotional balance is what creates well-rounded individuals who have the proper energy to lead teams through challenges. Clara must continue to seek balance, knowing that her effectiveness as a leader will improve, as she understands how to manage the varied aspects of her life.



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