Monday, June 25, 2007

Hanging Out With Twenty Somethings: A Leadership Fitness Check Up

When you are outnumbered by three to one for several days with the twenty something generation, it’s a Margaret Mead anthropological experience. Demographers are on a hot streak again educating baby boom leaders in the art and science of welcoming the Gen Xers to the workplace. When theory and practice come together, it’s an eye opener.

Picture this. We’re on our way to dinner heading to the parking lot. One young man is holding a large garbage bag in his right hand, a cell in his left wandering around looking for the dumpster while having an animated phone conversation. The other young man is on his cell. The young woman is checking her text messages. I’m the only one determinedly working on my “slow” philosophy simply enjoying the surroundings.

The car is no different. Text messaging and cell phone talk. No good conversation here.

At the restaurant, things improve. Talk meanders to hot women and men among the patrons. I do my “be interested” not “interesting” approach by asking a few questions of each. What do they think of the water shortage problem? How are things going? The young people get engaged and put forth some fascinating views. I’m now more in my element!

I am beginning to tune in. I am in a different culture. Just soak it up and enjoy it. Let go of my own “way”. So, I decide to sit back and just “be”. Isn’t that what anthropologists really do?

I remember when I was in my twenties. Very keen. Full of new ideas. So happy to be out in the work place earning money, being independent. But, the work environment was not entirely welcoming and that feeling of being out of place persisted for many years. It is waning somewhat now because more of us in the baby boomer crowd are in leadership positions. Yet, with each successive wave of the generations, the culture divide is never far away. It’s a reality even more so with increasing diversity of ethnic backgrounds.

Technology adds to the complexity. The younger generation of workers has been raised on Web-based tools---chat rooms, wikis, blogs, personal broadcasting, peer-to-peer networks and the ubiquity of the cell phone. Their brains are hard wired differently. I watch them with amazement as they update their websites taking advantage of free ware to make picture collages, add new friends, alter the graphics. I’m counting on “Web Tools” for Dummies to being me up to speed.

The advent of the Web has added an element of pace and a new means of conversation for leaders to grasp and work with. The Net Generation moves fast and takes no prisoners. As demographers keep reminding us, young workers want feedback now. They want action asap. Yet, like in my younger days, they face a generation ahead of them that seems slower off the mark and resistant. In our defense, we value process and some reflective check points (call it managing risk).

There’s an upside. I can imagine that NetGen group is developing a new adaptive strength---tolerance. In turn, it is fostering, at an early age, the development of valuable skills in mentoring and coaching upward. Maybe that’s a good thing as during my twenty something days, the communication was decidedly one way.

For the baby boomers, let’s take some tips from the anthropologists: seek out the Net Gen’s views. Immerse and listen. Learn.

In his poem Experience, Ralph Waldo Emerson celebrated and encouraged differences:

Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and as we pass through them, they prove to be many colored lenses which paint the world their own hue and each shows only what lies in its focus...[we] need the whole society to give the symmetry we seek.

When solving a problem, diversity almost always trumps individual ability. When making a prediction, diversity matters just as much as ability. Scott Page explains this in considerable detail in his book, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies. The challenge is to work with not against it, especially regarding Gen X. For baby boomers, it’s a tall order and one that is no different than that which confronted those that came before us. We have no time to waste though if we want the best and the brightest to be on our teams.

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