I want to speak to you in this Leading Thoughts about the power of joining the generations. It is a power that can take the firm you lead to greater success.
We are fortunate to have three gifted generations shaping our culture today—business culture in particular. There are the baby boomers, of course, who are 80 million strong, so creative they have remade the world in their image, and are young enough to still be playing a decisive role.
There are also the Gen Xers. These are the children of the boomers who came into the world beginning in the late 1960s and were still being born in the 1980s. They, too, are around 80 million strong. They are hard-working survivors who know how to sacrifice to achieve a goal.
The much-maligned millennials are also 80 million strong, are stunningly innovative, and are fierce about social justice. They sometimes present themselves as overly delicate—thus the term “snowflake” for the easily offended—but have proven themselves tougher than expected with their extreme sports, pursuit of grand plans, and willingness to confront societal norms.
Faced with the claims of these three massive tribes, leaders of every kind have been forced to decide how to involve them in a way that leads to future success. Some leaders, believing the future belongs to the young, have built exclusively around millennials. Others have leaned toward the ever-moderating Gen Xers, in hope that they will keep the other two generations both in check and productive. A great many organizations are led by boomers, since this generation’s age and wealth lands power naturally in their hands.
Now there are dozens of theories and many models of how these three generations ought to play a role on the leadership stage, but I want to suggest that the best approach is a joining of the generations rather than a leaning to one generation or another.
In a joining of the generations, the best of each generation can emerge while its weakness or excesses can be checked. Gen Xers who might run roughshod over social concerns can be checked by the reforming Millennials. Boomers, who tend to be excessive dreamers at times, can be checked by the goal orientation and the stellar work ethic of Gen Xers. And so it goes. Mentoring occurs. Differences produce productive tensions. Creativity surfaces. A corporate “family” can organically emerge.
Organizations ignore the power of this joining of the generations to their peril. I know a church board that has no provision for rotating leadership, has no millennials among its members, and is unwisely boomer heavy—and this in a university-filled area. They have declined in the last decade and a half by more than 90 percent.
I also know of a company that decided they would prosper among millennial customers if they were led by millennials. The company has declined dramatically. The millennials are inventive and socially conscious, but they were not given the opportunity to learn business fundamentals from older generations before they were expected to produce wealth for investors. Apart from a dramatic turn around, this company will likely close its doors.
Joining the generations is a strategy that maximizes the gifts of our demographics. We can build for the future while drawing from the wisdom of the past. We can be innovative and visionary while being tethered to the practical and the hard-won lessons of experience.