By Rex Huppke
Look out, non-millennials. The new generation has us surrounded.
Generation Xers and baby boomers recently found out that millennials make up the largest share of the American workforce.
These whipper-snappers are no longer just the colleagues of us older-generation folks, they’re becoming, in many cases, our managers and bosses.
(Hang on while I adjust the cushion on my rocking chair.)
The good news is, we may not all be as different as we think.
While I’ve seen piles of studies and news stories detailing the unique aspects of millennials, data in a new survey suggest that when it comes to leadership, the various generations have strikingly similar ideas about what’s important.
First off, the survey by executive development firm Future Workplace and career networking company Beyond.com found that 83 percent of respondents have seen millennials managing people from the Generation X and baby boomer generations. That’s not surprising given the steady retirement of boomers and the sheer number of millennials now in the workforce.
The problem is, the survey found 45 percent of baby boomer and Gen X respondents think a lack of management experience among millennials might hurt their company’s culture. Close to half of millennials see themselves as “the most capable generation to lead in the workplace,” but only 14 percent of all respondents agree.
Also, more than one-third of millennial respondents said they find it difficult to manage older generations.
“What has happened is now you’ve got about a fourth of millennials in leadership roles, and it’s going to happen more,” said Dan Schawbel, partner and research director at Future Workplace. “They’re being rushed into these positions because you have boomers retiring so fast, and now there’s a competition between Gen Xers and millennials as to who’s better for those roles.”
The key here, as I’ve mentioned in past columns and as Schawbel preaches as well, is to provide millennials with leadership
and development training. Because regardless of who you think is more qualified, the millennials have the numbers and boomers are dropping out fast.
(For clarity, a Pew Research Center report in May put the number of millennials in the workforce at 53.5 million, with 52.7 million Gen Xers and 44.6 million boomers. Pew defines millennials as people ages 18 to 34. Gen Xers range in age from 35 to 50, and boomers are ages 51 to 69.)
But let’s look past qualifications and focus solely on what people from each generation view as important skills for leaders.
Answers to the question, “What could you improve on to be a better leader?” were strikingly consistent.
All three generations, within 1 to 2 percentage points, rated general business knowledge, communication skills and the ability to innovate as areas needing the most attention.
Asked about their top strengths, exactly 15 percent of each generation said “ability to build relationships,” a range of 20 percent to 23 percent said “ability to work well with others and build a great team” and a range of 15 percent to 16 percent said “communication skills.”
Lastly, when asked their biggest complaints about managing younger generations, millennials, Gen Xers and boomers were again right in line, with the top three complaints being: they believe they’re entitled; they lack focus; and they spend too much time on technology.
This data suggest an important commonality in the ways we want to lead and be led.
Nicholas Pearce, a clinical assistant professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, said the country’s shift away from an industrial economy to a knowledge-based economy has likely brought our views of leadership more in line.
“In this knowledge economy, we have seen the rise of what we might call ‘leadership by commitment,'” Pearce said. “It engages and motivates and enables and integrates people to come together to make a common goal or vision a reality. When you’re asking people to bring their heads and their hearts to work, the kind of leadership that is required is fundamentally different from an era or an environment in which you didn’t want people to invest their hearts and their creativity into their work tasks.”
He continued: “This is a shift in leadership that we have seen really over the last few decades, and people of all generations would love to have leadership like this. People of older generations may have been raised in a different environment, but if they had their preferences, they would prefer this leadership by commitment approach. I would say Gen Xers desired that kind of leadership but didn’t see it as much, but the millennials have built on the desire of Gen X and are coming in the door of organizations expecting that type of leadership to happen.”
Generational shifts in the workforce are inherently tricky, and it’s easy to get hung up on our differences. But perhaps we should spend more time identifying the ways in which we’re all more or less the same.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune