By Sharon Birkman Fink
It’s time for businesses and other organizations to stop trying to recruit leaders and instead to start building them. Companies should discover that the best leaders are invested in the organization through more than just stock options. They understand the culture and seek to further its business goals. The best leaders come from within. They can be identified and nurtured so that they have an intrinsic desire and passion for excellence and want their organization to succeed because they feel connected emotionally to its mission and purpose.
Let’s put this kind of leadership development into very concrete terms. Identifying individuals with the requisite leadership traits must begin early in their careers, so they can receive training focused on integrating their strengths with specific leadership requirements. That puts the spotlight on the capabilities inherent in the youngest and largest workforce generation: the 80 million-plus Millennials born since 1981. Their strengths can be identified and nurtured in ways that prepare them for leadership in a multigenerational workplace.
Are the Generations Really Different?
This won’t happen automatically. Consider the broad generational groups found in most organizations. Members of older generations (“Traditionals” born before 1945, Baby Boomers in their 50s and older, “Generation Xers” in their late 30s and 40s) worry about shrinking retirement savings and want to hold onto their jobs. Younger Millennials seek more opportunity for growth and responsibility. That gives employers the challenge of balancing the different needs and working styles of four different generations in the workforce.
However, as with other diversity categories, personality research shows that intergenerational workforce differences are not fundamental. Older and younger workers may have different social and technological norms, but every generation has introverts, extroverts and other personality types, usually in the same proportion. Automatic “generation gap” assumptions underestimate the inherent ability of people to work with others when given guidance the best ways to achieve a common purpose – the success of the company that employs them all.
What Types of Leaders Do You Need?
Leadership is essential for collaborative workplace teams to work, and training can help bridge potential generation gaps between older team members and Millennials. Members of older generations typically see teams operating with formal authority and accountability linked directly to hierarchy. Millennials expect a “flat” organizational structure, with competence and expertise defining the points of authority. The key challenge is to enhance the leadership motivation of Millennials while helping older individuals reframe their definitions of the leadership process.
This requires training structured to emphasize the organizational assets of Millennials and help them execute to the fullest of their capabilities. The training focus should be on measuring and understanding whether a younger worker’s personality traits mesh with the core competencies for leadership, particularly the ability to work with others while leading productively and effectively. Identifying the best talent and training programs that grow the capabilities of these individuals, makes building generationally diverse teams a systematic process, not a hit-and-miss effort.
Remember that different types of leaders are needed in different parts of the organization. What motivates a sales team may be very different from what motivates a financial group. There is no “one size fits all” solution, either by functional unit or by leadership style. The good news is basic leadership skills can always be further developed.
Can You Afford to Wait?
Although it’s possible to some degree to generalize about certain outlooks or traits of generations as demographic groups, it is important to remember that each person in a generation will have his or her own strengths, weaknesses, productive and stress behaviors and learning preferences that may be similar to or differ from his or her generational cohorts. By seeking them out, Millennials can serve as a new generation of strong leaders who are flexible, able to cope with change, and ready to find new ways of solving problems. Now is the time for forward-looking organizations to prepare this new generation of leaders.
Of course, there are those who think this unnecessary. The recession has given rise to the cliché that economic turmoil will force Baby Boomers to postpone their retirements – or perhaps will keep them from even being able to retire at all. This is a short-sighted reaction to recent events, and ignores the long-term demands both of business strategy and of demographics. Whether because of job mobility or simply the ongoing need for innovative thinking, smart companies will always seek to identify, train, develop and retain new management talent as business needs and economic trends dictate. And Baby Boomers will inevitably retire, which means that replacing them is a necessity.
There can be, but does not have to be, intergenerational conflict in the workplace. Again, intergenerational workforce differences are not fundamental. What is fundamental is that the requirements for and characteristics of good leaders, when customized to specific parts of the organization, are consistent across generations. The best way to identify tomorrow’s leaders is to structure training so that it emphasizes the organizational assets of each workforce generation, and fits these persons where they will be the most comfortable and able to execute to the fullest of their capabilities.
Sharon Birkman Fink is President and CEO of Houston based Birkman International, Inc., developer of The Birkman Method® leadership and team development tool. www.birkman.com
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