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December 17, 2020 Thursday 01:16:24 PM IST

Cross-Generational Leadership

Leadership Instincts

For the first time in history, five generations are going to work under one roof. In majority of the organizations, we can easily spot employees from generations spanning Baby Boomers, Generation X and Y, and perhaps a few Generation Z’s.  While the retirement rate of Baby Boomers are skyrocketing at a rate of one every seven seconds, they still hold a commendable portion of the workforce. Millennials, conversely, make up the greatest portion of the workforce.

It's not unusual to see Millennials working together with, and possibly leading, Baby Boomers and Generation Xers. This brings in a hue of issues for leaders spearheading the organization. How to create a team of individuals from diverse generations that can grow and learn from one another, and together create a great work force? How to communicate to employees of various age groups? How to inspire someone much older or much younger than you? And finally: what to do to motivate employees of varying generations to share their knowledge? Here are 4 keys to help smooth the rough edges so you can improve working relationships on a generationally diverse team.

Reverse Mentoring

Younger workforce, majority of them digital natives, may have thoughts or technology choices that haven’t been explored, and veteran workforce have the knowledge and proficiency to make new processes work. That’s why some establishments, diagnosing the need to bridge the generation gap in the workspace, are encouraging their older and younger team members to be a part of formal or informal reverse mentoring activities. Jack Welch, the tough, former CEO of General Electric (GE), propagated the concept of reverse mentoring in 1999. In his in-house research, he combined 500 senior and junior employees, hoping that latter would enlighten the former about technological improvements and techniques. In the years since Welch’s ground-breaking effort, many to Fortune 500 companies have created their own reverse mentoring programs. Even though they vary in scale and scope, all share one common methodology: synchronising shared learning between co-workers of varied backgrounds to create symbiotic corporate learning.


Flex the hours

Cross generational leadership is mainly about facilitating everyone on the team juggle their work-life, balance priorities, and combat burnout. Teams that feel overstrained can work together to find a solution so that not all employees are working all the time. Maybe one member of the team loves working early, while another enjoys late night work. Or, you could equally balance off-hours coverage so not everyone has to be responsive round the clock. Around three fourth of millennials, and majority of baby boomers, prefers a flexible schedule that works for them. The acceptance of the traditional 9AM-5 PM appears to be fast disappearing as it looks as if most employees are attracted to flexible hours and telecommuting. Along with that, hot-desking and shared spaces is more attractive to millennials than plain cabins and fixed computers, which baby boomers would be more used to.

Communicate change

The stereotype is that elderly individuals hate change and younger generations embrace it, but these are imprecise assumptions. Usually, change makes employees from all generations uncomfortable and may feel change fatigue. Fighting against change has nothing to do with age; it is all about the extent of loss or gain for the individual associated with that change. The ideal way to manage change and be an effective change leader is to communicate. For instance, take the case of Scandinavian Airlines.  The company badly needed an organizational shift in the early 1980s. As a part of change initiative, all 20,000 of its employees got a short handbook capturing the essence of change initiative. Titled Let’s Get in There and Fight, the booklet consisted of descriptions of airplanes, rich with cartoons and large typeface fonts that stressed where the business was and the vision for where it wanted to be. It well depicted how ‘storm clouds’ and ‘bad weather’ had badly affected the business and how it is struggling to remain profitable. It explained its competition and how the workforce could help it stay competitive. Through its change efforts, Scandinavian Airlines not only met its business objective of enhancing earnings by $25 million in the initial year, they improved them by $80 million.


Learning Environment

Everybody loves learning -- more than just about anything else. Learning and development were among the top concerns regularly stated in surveys done among employees of all the generations. Everybody wants to make sure they have the training needed to perform their present job well. Organizations need to build a work setting that empowers team members to comprehend and get involved in what they need to learn to progress to the next level. The Chief Executive of Rakuten, Hiroshi Mikitani was keen to transform the very language of the company.

Instead of the majority of his organization communicating in their native Japanese, he wanted his 7,150 Tokyo employees to take up the challenge and conduct business in English. This change was in alignment with the firm’s attempts to be the front runner in internet services across the globe. In two years, Mikitani anticipated that his entire workforce would be proficient in English. But initial surveys found that a large percentage of the workforce, especially native Japanese speakers and older employees, were scared, upset, worried, and even troubled by the initiative. To address their concerns, Rakuten channelized funding for language learning programs, put across to employees that the organization was there for them. With proper communication and a congenial learning environment for all generations, they made the change possible.

Generational leadership is a double-edged sword. Having the capability to nurture communication and in depth comprehension of the skills and knowledge each generation brings to the table can be a daunting task. As you explore the differences between your team, you will be able to narrow down a pattern that works for everyone.  Enhancing diversity and making a work environment that shows value for all individuals and their skills, regardless of age, can help companies succeed.



Dr. Manu Melwin Joy

The writer is an Assistant Professor at School of Management Studies, CUSAT

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