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Cross Generational Leadership

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A national association of higher education was beginning to see a shift in its membership. As it were, there were a significant number of Baby Boomers who were occupying the majority of the leadership roles. Everyone saw the importance of grooming successors. Those who stood to replace them were Millennials, that new group of up-and-coming professionals eager for leadership responsibility and executive experience.

These two groups shared a passion for their work and a dedication to their organization. But, there were differences, too. One of the more obvious was the Millennials’ facility for new media. The less obvious but more important difference was in how these two groups related to the basic idea of a professional association. The Baby Boomers expected their association to be a “union for professionals,” providing members with an opportunity to share information among one another and, in so doing, build respect for their profession. The Millennials’ model has not fully taken shape, but it appeared they expected the association to help them advocate for change. They desired collaboration among related associations that have been competitors in the past, in addition to instantaneous information sharing. The Baby Boomers, in contrast, were more geared toward an academic model with long lead times resulting in a publishable document.


As far as stories go, this one seems relatively “dog bites man,” doesn’t it? Discrepancy across generations in the workforce is hardly a new problem. Baby Boomers often see Millennials as quick to act, short to listen, and boasting experience they don’t often have. In contrast, the Gen Y crowd sees their older, Gen X counterparts as not knowing how to adapt, or worse, unwilling to do so. Yet with the ever-changing landscape, it is imperative that these two learn to play nicely in the workplace, and especially grow to respect one another. The young professional’s shtick goes well beyond social media; they now expect spontaneity and real-time conversation to a higher degree than the older generation of leaders.

The answer, in this case, involves Baby Boomers keeping an open mind about the incumbent class of association members. It was necessary for them to become open to seeing their business done differently, even in a way that transcended the day-to-day; as basic as it was, leaders needed to ask themselves whether or not what the association intended to provide should be reconsidered to appeal to new ways of thinking. Generation X leaders need to be sensitive to the needs and experiences of Generation Y employees, not just because they represent potential successors, but also because they represent the future of business.

It does, however, need to be a two-way street. Millennials need to learn to understand the value that experience provides an organization. They may know what’s next, but their higher-ups will know what was. They will have built relationships with influential people in their professional arena that are important to leverage. So while Gen Y can present a fresh and optimistic perspective, Gen X can help ground them in business realities.

This balance is a tough yet important one to strike that calls for, above all else, open-mindedness on the part of both generations and a level of sensitivity to both weathered perspectives and new ways of thinking. Do you have any recommendations for striking this balance? And do you think organizations are making too much of these differences? Are we perhaps talking ourselves into seeing a conflict that is more about form than substance?

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