Is your company stormproof?
The storm I’m talking about isn’t a tornado or hurricane, but rather a “perfect storm” in the battle for talent. A tightening labor market combined with baby boomer retirements is adding up to significant talent gaps at many companies. Younger workers are often not ready to take over in leadership positions. Meanwhile, they are becoming frustrated with perceived shortfalls in the leadership development opportunities available at many companies.
A colleague of mine witnessed this frustration first hand at a recent conference on operational excellence. She overheard several Millennials venting about the lack of growth opportunities at their oil and gas company. In their view, baby boomer managers and executives were limiting their growth by not providing “stretch” assignments. The boomers felt that younger workers needed ten, fifteen, or even twenty years of experience before they were ready for these assignments. To the Millennials, such qualifications were arbitrary and unnecessary.
“Middle ground” solutions do exist to such intergenerational conflict, and we must all take steps to find them. Boomers and Xers in positions of power must take more risks on younger employees, while younger employees also must understand the realities of the business and the need for hands-on experience.
All generations should also revisit the concept of “paying your dues.” While gaining experience is obviously critical, companies could profit by focusing more on experiences that really matter rather than experience for its own sake. Because Millennials as a cohort like flexibility and freedom, companies can rely on them to power their own development tracks, shaping what and how they learn. Although it might be necessary for an employee to spend five years learning a skill, perhaps with today’s technology that learning could be compressed into four years, three years, or even less. Organizations need to think more creatively about what is truly required and how much time it takes.
To further stormproof themselves, companies must ready the generations for the emerging leadership transition. That means paying closer attention to generational differences. Generational expert Cam Marston has observed that, “Each generation has a ‘personality’ as well as approach to employers and careers. A working knowledge of generational differences gives you some tools to begin each relationship on a footing of trust and understanding.”
When designing developmental opportunities for Millennials, be sure to customize them to their unique preferences, taking into account their desire for open communication, their need for individuality, and their comfort with guidance and mentoring. With Gen X, listen to their interests and ask them what they need from you. Boomers tend to want more input regarding their development, and more focus on how they can best help achieve the organization’s overall goals. Be sure to give Boomers recognition when asking them to engage with and help develop younger employees.
In approaching development efforts, companies should consider three concepts in particular, what I call the “Three O’s”: Ownership, Opportunity, and Openness. They should afford Ownership to employees by clarifying roles and responsibilities, giving them valuable skills training, and gaining buy in from all invested parties. They should provide real Opportunities by ensuring that the proper infrastructure exists and showing flexibility and a willingness to try new things (within reasonable bounds, of course). Finally, companies should stay Open, displaying transparency around development processes and pursuing honest conversations about expectations.
If your company prepares for the changing of the guard, it can indeed “stormproof” itself, avoiding the roughest transitional moments while successfully developing the next generation of breakthrough leaders. Stay focused on what each generation wants and needs. And remember, too, we all ultimately want the same things at work: Respect and the feeling that our contribution really does count.