As we go through the transition phase, the older members of Gen X must make the effort to communicate and guide the millennials.
Depending on where you draw the line, I’m either a very young baby boomer or a very old member of Generation X. These generations hold the majority of executive leadership positions across sectors. In other words, we’re in charge.
Enter the millennials. This younger set hasn’t always seen eye-to-eye with their baby boomer or Gen X colleagues in the workplace. Negative chatter often hums around them, mostly centering on the assertion that they’re entitled or narcissistic. This has led to the idea that millennials aren’t ready to join the real world and work hard.
So it’s the millennials who need to get in line — right?
Not so fast. I believe it’s the leaders, not the millennials, who should be trying harder to bridge the generational gap. As we approach the inevitable crossroads of old and new leadership, it is the job of today’s executives and managers to develop the people they expect to carry the torch forward.
In the years I spent as the course director for military leadership at West Point, I got to know some millennials pretty well. I came to appreciate their readiness to work just as hard as previous generations, perhaps even harder. Millennial West Point graduates have selected the most dangerous initial assignments for their Army service at rates higher than previous generations. They aren’t looking for military jobs that will just set them up for good business careers later. They’re demonstrating with their very lives that they’re ready to join the real world.
The older and younger generations suffer from two key stumbling blocks: communication gaps and preconceived notions. Communication technologies have changed rapidly over the last 10 years and not all baby boomers have kept up. And members of both generations can fall victim to negative talk and end up stereotyping their older or younger co-workers instead of looking for common ground.
Today’s leaders have a choice: They can make assumptions about the next generation or they can invest in young professionals the same way that others have invested in them.
Changing with time
Leaders must push millennials forward, not drag them back to what they believe to be the “good old ways” of developing people. Seasoned leaders don’t need to turn their backs on decades of experience, but they also don’t need to subject emerging generations to the same techniques of learning and development that made sense 10 or 20 years ago.
To create such a paradigm shift, leaders must first understand that not everyone learns the same way. Recent advances in the behavioural sciences have shown that people develop at different rates in different areas and at different times in their lives. For example, I learn creative skills (such as motivating and leading others) best in an ambiguous environment and perform them much differently than I learn and execute basic skills (such as marksmanship) that I master over time and through practice. Technological innovations, like tablet devices and cloud computing, will allow for a more dynamic and valid assessment of individual learning and developmental styles. These updated techniques will move us away from simply labelling someone as a certain type of learner, and create a clearer understanding of how each person learns across different environments. With this understanding, today’s leaders will better be able to guide and train the younger generation for leadership roles.
Guiding into the future
I’m not suggesting that millennials get new rules just to suit them, or that they be allowed to pick and choose which educational requirements they complete. I’m saying it is incumbent upon today’s leaders to ensure that what they ask millennials to do is relevant, meaningful and valid for their personal development and future careers.
This type of thinking requires leaders to consider more closely how their followers learn. It’s a less leader-centric view of leadership. To truly guide and develop the younger generation, executives and managers must practise transformational and authentic leadership.
U.S. Gen. Eric Shinseki offered great advice to old-school military leaders as he sought to introduce paradigm-shifting change across the Army. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less,” he said. Let’s become relevant to more than just ourselves.
(Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.)
Col. Eric G. Kail is an active duty Army officer. He has held numerous staff and command positions both in peacetime and in combat, and holds a Ph.D. in organisational psychology. His awards include the Bronze Star. © 2013 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp.