Thriving in a Multi-Generational Era

Creating Effective Leadership

Executives looking to tap rising members for a leadership position take many things into consideration. Regardless of one’s personality type or generation, executives want to know what makes for an effective leader. The Center for Creative Leadership offers insight into this question. Since its annual Leadership Survey was launched in 2008, the organization has been gathering and building data on effective leadership. Its 2013 edition, which surveyed 5,940 participants throughout North America, found:

1. Leadership challenges have more to do with fostering behaviors, such as showing consideration for others, than with differences between generations.

2. In an effort to discover problematic issues, leaders should scrutinize the organizational cultures of its group, along with any formal policies and practices.

3. Executives shouldn’t spend resources on custom-tailored solutions that will cater to specific generations but instead create solutions that will appeal to any generation.

Based on survey feedback, the center recommends that leaders who wish to be effective across all generational divides should be:

More participative: Solicit, embrace and use ideas gathered from staff or board members.

Team-oriented: Establish reasonable times, for example, in which to conduct meetings that recognize the demands placed on others. Or encourage team-building that is designed to provide mutual support as well as solve problems.

Charismatic: Sincere enthusiasm is infectious.

More humane: Discover what colleagues and subordinates must routinely deal with and be compassionate and understanding.

With four of six different American generations now working side-by-side for the first time in history, and each group characterized by its own beliefs, biases and value systems, one might assume the result to be utter chaos. Journalists and researchers have fueled this expectation for a decade, predicting a workplace meltdown. But while much has been written about a potential cultural clash, there’s little evidence that a generational disaster is under way. Sure, dynamic tension among association staff and leaders may be occurring more frequently, but is that the result of generational differences—or something else?

Each year, the Association Laboratory, an association consulting firm in Chicago, conducts an association environmental scan based on a survey of industry professionals. In this year’s paper, “Looking Forward 2014,” those surveyed commented warily on senior management: “Older executives may face a situation where their tactical knowledge and expertise are becoming so substantively different than that required by the new workplace environment, they may struggle to lead and manage organizations effectively.”

But this is hardly the stuff of cataclysmic generational conflict. Senior management, through the ages, has often fallen behind on the innovations that have reshaped commerce and society. Even Henry Ford ultimately got left behind.

Debating the accuracy of stereotypes. Most demographers now identify six different American generations. What is often examined are the common traits, thoughts and behavior of the various generations and how those things effect habits in the workplace or conflict with the work habits of other generations. It isn’t easy to dismiss the impact that different environments and history have had on each of the generations, but shouldn’t we be more skeptical of the accuracy of such broadly drawn conclusions?

When online career network surveyed 6,000 millennials and human resource specialists in 2013, the results revealed striking disparities in perceptions, most of them at the expense of millennials. When the survey asked whether millennials are loyal, 82 percent of the millennials surveyed said yes, whereas only 14 percent of human resource specialists agreed. When asked if they were hardworking, 86 percent of the millennials agreed, but only 14 percent of the HR group said yes. On whether they are team players, 60 percent of that generation agreed versus 22 percent of HR professionals. And when asked if they were tech-savvy, only 35 percent of millennials said yes, whereas 86 percent of HR professionals believed it to be true.

The conclusion? We’re dealing with a lack of communication—something that exacerbates and perpetuates faulty perceptions. No group wants to be pigeonholed, such as the millennials in this example, who are seen as lazy and disloyal computer wizards.

Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist of Washington, D.C.–based Eisenstodt Associates, said that among her association clients she continues to hear from disgruntled millennials who complain they are not respected and their styles bother the gen Xers and boomers. Conversely, many boomers are convinced that millennials are lazy and unethical.

Ann Fishman, whose New York company Generational Targeted Marketing develops solutions to generational-based marketing challenges, believes employers should make an effort to understand the characteristics and motivations of each generation—and they should try to look on the bright side. She recently wrote, “Millennials are digital citizens. They are lost without their smartphones, their tablets, their ear buds. And millennials are social creatures. After all, they were raised being team-taught, team-graded and participating in team sports. These two characteristics are not in conflict—they are complementary. And a generationally savvy workplace—one that wants to keep its best millennial workers—offers them a bit of both.”

Resolving differences by focusing on personality types. If experts seem to disagree about the telltale traits of 80 million millennials, it goes without saying that the issue also perplexes association executives. Nevertheless, there are still differences that must be dealt with in the workplace. So what’s the solution?

As Bob London, CAE, executive director of Alpha Phi Omega National Service Fraternity, recently discovered, some issues have less to do with generational differences and more to do with personality types. A couple years ago, London decided to bring in a coach/facilitator to help him address what appeared to be generational-driven conflict among his 16-person staff at its Independence, Missouri, headquarters.

“Our staff is composed of four generations and consists of four men and 12 women. I became concerned because it seemed that everyone was walking on eggshells, especially around our baby boomers. Things were tense, and after trying traditional measures like staff retreats and meetings, which led only to some nominal hit-or-miss fixes, I decided to bring in a professional.”

London hoped staff members would respond better to a professional who had the skills and experience to deal with these problems. For six sessions, the facilitator worked individually and in groups with London’s staff to raise awareness of the differences in their thinking, behaviors and styles.

London learned his group’s conflicts stemmed from a variety of personality and communication styles. In the year since the facilitator’s visit, he reported that things have improved significantly. “Instead of tension and distrust, it’s more common to hear someone say to a colleague, ‘I think your judging voice is showing,’ a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Myers-Briggs personality assessment that was a part of their training.”

According to Dana Murphy-Love, CAE, partner at association management company Melby, Cameron & Anderson in Edmonds, Washington, there is enormous value in helping staff learn more about the work and communications preferences of their colleagues and themselves. Her company has been using the four-color personality test, a diagnostic assessment that uses a color-coding system to designate an individual’s predominate communication preferences.

“We put everyone’s dominant color on nameplates at their work spaces to remind us of our inherent differences,” Murphy-Love said. “I tend to be a pretty direct, let’s-just-get-to-the-issue kind of person. Others, however, might need more time to ramp up to things, so when I know I’m about to engage with someone who is strongly blue—a more touchy-feely personality—I will take that into account before focusing on the business at hand.” 

Personality types aside, Murphy-Love said she sees generational conflicts occurring among association leaders, which can have severe consequences on an organization’s future if not handled with care. “We manage one group that is so highly entrenched in its traditions and processes that it has been difficult to engage younger members,” she said. “When many discover the complex and sometimes arcane processes the board continues to practice, they flee. The board, all baby boomers, just hasn’t been willing to relinquish ground on things like requiring business attire at all association functions. For them, business-casual just doesn’t exist, and that kind of thinking has become an obstacle.”

On the other hand, Murphy-Love said her company has also managed associations that have had no problems incorporating younger generations into a board filled with older members. “One of the groups made a very seamless transition from leaders, all of whom were older, to what is now a very effective blend of age groups,” she said. “The results for that association have been extremely positive.”