Executive Briefings

Leadership in a Multi-generational Workforce

Today's workforce consists of Baby Boomers hanging on to their jobs, Gen Xers growing impatient to move up, and Millennials expecting to leapfrog their way to the top. Generations expert Hannah Ubl of BridgeWorks offers tips for leaders who must manage this potentially combustible mix.

Baby Boomers expected to move up the career ladder by working hard and "paying their dues," says Ubl. That concept also is embraced by Millennials, but in a different way, she says. "Millennials know they have to work hard, but they do expect their career to progress quickly. In their minds, they have paid their dues after three years."

While that attitude may grate on older workers, the fact is that Millennials, who are roughly the 19 to 33 year olds, will have to be moved up more rapidly than their predecessors just to keep up with growing demand in a global economy, Ubl says. She points to the numbers: “Baby Boomers are 80 million strong and a huge block will soon leave the workforce. There are not enough Generation Xers (35 to 50 year olds), who number only 60 million, to take on those roles, so Millennials will have to be pushed through the pipeline faster.”

Many Generation Xers, however, are feeling trapped between the Millennials nipping at their heels and Baby Boomers, who often are reluctant to retire, particularly since the recent recession. “A lot of Gen Xers are ready to move up to senior leadership positions, but they feel they are hitting a ‘gray ceiling’ because Baby Boomers are still there,” says Ubl. Companies really need to find ways to engage these workers by creating new positions or giving them a passion project where they can lead a group in an entrepreneurial way, she notes. “Xers want to change and to grow. They are like sharks; if they don’t keep swimming they will die, so companies need to get creative in developing leadership opportunities for them. Knowing how to engage and retain the Xers that are in the leadership pipeline is crucial to the workforce of future,” she says.

It is inevitable that some companies will have multi-generational leadership, which may lead to a clash of leadership styles, says Ubl. “Baby Boomers typically are very optimistic and idealistic; they have a ‘can do’ attitude, and a more formal approach to communications. Gen Xers tend to be bit more skeptical by nature, so they are very honest, direct and to the point in their thinking and communications. Clashes typically come when you have someone with a ‘can do’ attitude working with someone who wants to get all the details worked out before plowing ahead,” she says.

Millennials, especially if they get promoted earlier, need to “listen more and talk less,” says Ubl. “Many times Millennials don’t realize they still have a lot to learn, usually from people around them, including people they are managing.

“I have seen a number of situations where a Millennial in a managerial position thinks he or she has to take charge, but doesn’t recognize those moments where he could bring everyone in the team on board by sharing ideas across generations,” says Ubl. Another tip for Millennials is to get better at defining the line between personal and professional. “Millennials tend to be pretty informal and they like to be friends with their co-workers and the people they are managing,” she says. “They need to get better at separating the personal and professional, because it’s really hard to fire your best friend.”

To view the video in its entirety, click here

Baby Boomers expected to move up the career ladder by working hard and "paying their dues," says Ubl. That concept also is embraced by Millennials, but in a different way, she says. "Millennials know they have to work hard, but they do expect their career to progress quickly. In their minds, they have paid their dues after three years."

While that attitude may grate on older workers, the fact is that Millennials, who are roughly the 19 to 33 year olds, will have to be moved up more rapidly than their predecessors just to keep up with growing demand in a global economy, Ubl says. She points to the numbers: “Baby Boomers are 80 million strong and a huge block will soon leave the workforce. There are not enough Generation Xers (35 to 50 year olds), who number only 60 million, to take on those roles, so Millennials will have to be pushed through the pipeline faster.”

Many Generation Xers, however, are feeling trapped between the Millennials nipping at their heels and Baby Boomers, who often are reluctant to retire, particularly since the recent recession. “A lot of Gen Xers are ready to move up to senior leadership positions, but they feel they are hitting a ‘gray ceiling’ because Baby Boomers are still there,” says Ubl. Companies really need to find ways to engage these workers by creating new positions or giving them a passion project where they can lead a group in an entrepreneurial way, she notes. “Xers want to change and to grow. They are like sharks; if they don’t keep swimming they will die, so companies need to get creative in developing leadership opportunities for them. Knowing how to engage and retain the Xers that are in the leadership pipeline is crucial to the workforce of future,” she says.

It is inevitable that some companies will have multi-generational leadership, which may lead to a clash of leadership styles, says Ubl. “Baby Boomers typically are very optimistic and idealistic; they have a ‘can do’ attitude, and a more formal approach to communications. Gen Xers tend to be bit more skeptical by nature, so they are very honest, direct and to the point in their thinking and communications. Clashes typically come when you have someone with a ‘can do’ attitude working with someone who wants to get all the details worked out before plowing ahead,” she says.

Millennials, especially if they get promoted earlier, need to “listen more and talk less,” says Ubl. “Many times Millennials don’t realize they still have a lot to learn, usually from people around them, including people they are managing.

“I have seen a number of situations where a Millennial in a managerial position thinks he or she has to take charge, but doesn’t recognize those moments where he could bring everyone in the team on board by sharing ideas across generations,” says Ubl. Another tip for Millennials is to get better at defining the line between personal and professional. “Millennials tend to be pretty informal and they like to be friends with their co-workers and the people they are managing,” she says. “They need to get better at separating the personal and professional, because it’s really hard to fire your best friend.”

To view the video in its entirety, click here