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Developing Our Future Leaders: Who Will Do It and How Will They Do It?

Current perceptions of Boomers and Generation Y present a litany of contrasts, both in terms of how they view their role in the workplace as well as what actually matters to them about their work life.  Boomers were raised in an abundant, healthy economy so define their self-worth by the type of work they do and the position they hold in the organization.  Many boomers have spent a considerable number of years working for the same employer so are loyal to that employer.  They live to work and expect everyone else to feel the same – work long hours and maintain a strong work ethic.  Generation Y are children of boomers, some of which were rewarded for their years of loyalty by being downsized during the recessions of the 1990's and the early 2000's.  So these children do not see value in employer loyalty but are more focused on empowerment and equity.  Their natural instinct is to question authority and demand active participation in decisions made about their position, profile and responsibilities.  Generation Y believes everyone should get more from their employers and they are loyal to their colleagues, not their employer.

Documented perceptions of each other tend to focus on the contrasts – the differences – rather than on the similarities.  Yet the similarities are what these two generations can build on to create better working environments for themselves and each other.  Boomers are egocentric, what matters to them is what matters.  They live to work, having evaluated their worth to the organization by their position, the number of hours they work, and the number of promotions they receive.  Generation Y are focused on themselves and want to make their own choices.  They are caught up in themselves, believe that they work hard, and they are seeking careers that help them to ascend quickly up the career ladder.  Boomers want to be rewarded for results; Generation Y wants rapid success.  Both groups expect other members of the employee workforce, no matter the generation or the position or function, to have the same work ethic and the same sense of community.  Similarities abound.

There are different formative life experiences which have shaped each generation in the workplace today – Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y.  These life experiences have shaped their preferences, expectations, beliefs and most importantly when it comes to working with others of different generations, their working styles.  Although expectations and preferences may be different, this does not mean that values are different.  And the characteristics associated with each generation are descriptors of the generation not of all members of that generation.  Popular media and demographic experts may be taking these differences in working style too far by suggesting there is conflict between the generations due to value differences.  Most of this research is written by members of the Boomer generation, and has little empirical data to support the claims about Generation Y, in particular.  Given that Boomers and Generation Y are similar in size, the research tends to generalize about both.  Boomers are the ‘exiting' generation and Generation Y the ‘entering' generation and the fact remains that Boomers have the responsibility, and should accept the accountability, for developing the future leaders.

So if we take the position that the differences between the two generations are certainly manageable and can be accommodated and that it is more important to build on the similarities, then the question is  what is the Boomers' accountability for developing the next generation of leaders and how will they do it? 

Leaders must develop a good understanding of the generations in their workplace

Whether this research is done by the leader themselves or done for them by the organization's human resources department, it is important to assess the differences and similarities, evaluate them and incorporate a competency of ‘flexibility' into the leadership profile.  Demands for flexibility as a future competency will only increase as the balance shifts between Boomers and Generation Y.  With the plethora of communication and technology options available to employees, leaders will need to clearly understand how each fits into their organization's culture and continuously redefine their business strategy to direct investment decisions based on these options.

Encouraging sharing of preferences, expectations, and working styles by setting up discussions between members of different generations is a good first step.  Leaders who encourage open dialogue and continuous conversation among these generations will not only enhance the understanding between them but establish a solid foundation for employee engagement.

Leaders must develop a new leadership philosophy around developing future leaders.

Optimizing generational preferences and life experiences needs to be an integral part of the new leadership philosophy for Boomers seeking to develop future leaders from the Generation Y group.  And group is certainly the correct term, as these employees grew up participating in groups.  Their teenage dating behaviour was primarily as a member of a group, not as a couple.  They find comfort, strength, happiness in a group and leverage the group input for creative and innovative solutions to the challenges they face in their life.  As a result, they feel comfortable participating in a team environment where active participation is not only expected but encouraged by their leader.  Recognizing the value of the group input to Generation Y employees will enhance the leader's effectiveness and contribute to increased creativity and innovation in their organization.  This inclusive leadership style will enhance the organization overall.

One collaborative benefit of this new leadership philosophy and inclusive style is an increase in the organization's capacity to manage change.  With the focus on building a high performance organization, one that captures the creativity and innovation of all its employees, it is natural that change management capabilities would grow.  Of course, without this capacity, generational preferences and working styles will be difficult to integrate.  The inclusive style encourages new ideas, challenges to current ideas and methods, open communication and dialogue, and opportunities for new employees to participate in relevant projects and organizational initiatives.

A second collaborative benefit is a renewed focus on recruitment and retention of high performers.  No matter what generation they belong to, high performers seek out collegial environments and support tools and techniques to help them master their role.  These attributes are not the province of one particular generation but exist in all organizations so leaders who provide these team-oriented environments where learning opportunities abound will attract the best of each generation.

A third collaborative benefit of this new leadership philosophy is growth of the digital organization.  As new employees enter the organization, they bring with them familiar communication tools and a sophisticated understanding of social media and its use.  This knowledge and expertise will help to improve the competitiveness of the organization by pulling it into the digital age. 

All these benefits arise from leaders encouraging all employees to actively participate in, and contribute to, the direction of the organization.  By opening up the lines of communication and enhancing the interaction between the generations, these leaders provide a foundation for high performance growth.  Why limit strategic and planning discussions to only the most senior members of the organization?  Finding ways to reach out to new and junior employees to encourage their input and feedback creates a more flexible organization where creativity and innovation may surface better products and services.

Leaders should reach out to their mentors, coaches, and human resources experts to develop and fine tune their own mentoring and coaching skills.

Extending the inclusive leadership style to other leaders and managers within the organization provides an opportunity to mentor and coach colleagues as well as potential new leaders.  Developing future leaders involves sharing the new philosophy with other leaders and managers and teaching them the competency of flexibility and the concepts of open dialogue and continuous conversation.

Working with human resource and leadership experts internal and external to the organization, leaders can evaluate leadership competency and capability within their current leadership group.  Comparison of this evaluation to the competencies and capabilities identified in the new leadership philosophy will highlight the performance gap between the current state and where the organization needs to be, in terms of its leadership development.

Best practices research – whether conducted by the current leaders or those to whom they delegate this task – is a solid step to scope out the framework for leadership assessment and development.  This research provides a benchmark against which to identify barriers to the development of future leaders and how to remove those barriers.  A learning organization has a learning leader when they spend the time and effort to find out the best practices in other companies and industries that have successfully grown their future leadership rank.

Finally, creation of a ‘leaders developing leaders' formal process and development program will ensure development of future leaders has the authority, tools, support and techniques necessary to actually make it happen.

Each of the three generations currently residing in the workplace have their own preferences and expectations about their work environment and may have differences in their working styles.  But given that each generation is focused on personal development and growth and seeks out opportunities for this growth, there exists a solid foundation for continuous performance improvement.  Boomer leaders need to expect, and be expected, to develop the next generation of leaders.  This is a significant part of their legacy. 

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