Leadership in a Multi-Generational Workplace

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About the Author: Paul Mayer

In the Garland Chamber’s mission of providing leadership in development of the local economy, we are drawn on an increasing frequency into the discussion on workforce. In today’s world, having a sustainable, trained supply of workers is the single most important element in attracting and retaining business in any community. At a recent workforce pipeline summit sponsored by the Chamber and DCMA, City Manager Bryan Bradford said, “The first question that a company asks when considering moving to Garland is, ‘Do you have people ready to go to work?’”

With unemployment at 3 percent, nearly everyone who is qualified and wants to work is employed. Growing our own labor supply from the next generation is the only option left. That brings us to the challenge at hand: providing effective leadership in a workplace consisting of multiple generations. The Garland Chamber is represented by three generations, Baby Boomer, Gen X and Millennials. Half of us are in the last category. I believe this is true of most organizations in Garland.

The question is, what do we face when we work at providing direction and support for people with such a diverse world view? If you are in that place, I would recommend two things. First, get a copy of “The Millennial Challenge” by Darren K. Ford. In this insightful look at the multigeneration workplace, Darren breaks down specific characteristics of each generation and provides strategies for successfully leading them to success. For those of you who may believe the generational shift won’t affect you or your business, he will also convince you that the challenge is real and happening now. Darren comes at the subject with a great deal of experience from his role as a talent developer for major companies.

The second thing I would suggest is to evaluate how much do you, as a leader, enjoy change. This question is key in all aspects of business from customers to technology, from the way we view work to balancing life with how we earn a living. Leading people who were raised in a very different way than yourself fundamentally means you must change the way you think and act. This is easier to say than it is to do. Change is not something that anyone takes lightly. Two words that begin with the letter C: cancer and change. Many people fear change as much or more than cancer. In talking to many leaders about working with different generations, particularly millennials, there is a decided bias toward pointing out how difficult it is. Leaders use terms such as entitled, lazy, uncommitted, and impatient when describing the millennial population. If that describes you, and you dread confronting the situation, you might consider retirement or taking a position where only people who think like you are employed.

If you embrace change, the world becomes a much different place. You begin to look at the way you conduct your enterprise through the eyes of those young people. You will see them connect with the change in your customer base. You will be amazed at the comfort level they have with technology. They will open your mind to different ways to confront challenges. You will be filled with their energy and see more joy in what you do.

Saying this is not to suggest that the change is easy and not without with a great deal of soul searching on your part. You will find yourself answering the question, “Why?” a great deal. This next group of folks is smart, and they’re motivated by how results are achieved, not so much by how it has been done in the past. Confronting your definition of how work should be accomplished is a daunting and unnerving task. You may have the tendency to think that because you are the boss, people should just do what they are told. This worked for boomers and traditionalists, but Gen Xers and millennials need to know the why. The feeling of loosing control begins to creep into your thoughts and you can become indignant at the thought of your position being challenged. This is the opportunity to exhibit true leadership and maturity.

When you come from a place of confidence in your experience, your openness to listen and consider alternative ideas transforms the challenge significantly. You’ll begin to find it less daunting and more exciting. To accomplish a balance means letting go of some things and trying new ways of getting the job done. It does not mean you abdicate your role as a leader. You become stronger when you exhibit respect and an open mind. With that culture in place, it is much easier to communicate your thoughts and create an atmosphere of true collaboration. In my experience, the results are better when you do it that way.

I am 68 years old and have been working for more than 46 years. My tenure in Garland is approaching 30 years. I can truthfully say that I am more excited now than I have ever been at any point in my career. The intelligence, energy, willingness to learn and fearlessness about trying new ways of getting the job done that is being delivered by this next generation is adding years to my life and my optimism about the future. I am challenged every day to reaffirm my definition of leadership and it makes me stronger.

May you too grow with the future. Our companies, our workforce, our economy will be better for it.

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