Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bridging the Generation Gap

Young people, we hear, want to play video games all day, while thinking they should be in charge the Monday after they start. They are disloyal and will leave the job at the drop of a hat. Young people need praise all the time, yet they are non-conforming and don’t understand the rules of workplace.
Stereotypes of older people are equally common, including that they are RIP (“retired in position”) and unwilling to leave their jobs until someone drags them out. Older people can’t learn new things - especially technology.
People tend to have these implicit mental conceptions of who older people and younger people are, and what they can and cannot do. For a counter point, however, consider this hypothetical job description: Well-paid interesting work, with opportunities for learning and advancement, a supportive boss, credible leaders and trustworthy peers and subordinates.
Who wouldn’t want that job? The truth is people of all generations want jobs with those characteristics. So is there really a generation gap?
Demographic Realities and the Leadership Pipeline
At the Center for Creative Leadership, we constructed a survey on the topic and gathered data for more than five years. As of April, 2007, we had more than 6,000 respondents from more than 100 organizations on 6 continents. The results reported in the book (and in this article) are based on the 3,200 respondents both born and currently living in U.S.
We broke our American respondents down into five cohorts:
 The Silent Generation, born 1925-1945
 Early Baby Boomers, born 1946-1954
 Late Baby Boomers, born 1955-1963
 Early Generation X-ers, born 1964-1976
 Late Generation X-ers, born 1977-1986
What most people don’t understand about the generations is their relative size, and that is critical. It affects everything from retention to advancement to the need for learning. The defining demographic fact of Generation X is too few bodies, especially as compared to the Baby Boomer bulge; there are more than a million fewer Gen X-ers than there are Boomers. As the 1994 McKinsey & Company study War for Talent said, in the short term, the demand for young talent will far outstrip supply.
Because organizations face a leadership talent gap, they are likely to be paying more for young talent. At the CEO level, it’s not much of an issue because we can always import CEOs. But five levels down in the leadership pipeline, it is an issue; if you have too few bodies to fill jobs at the bottom or middle of the pipeline, you potentially have a real problem.
The take-away here is that stereotype of young people having an “entitlement mentality” is based in demographics; supply and demand underpins everything in the workplace. Gen X-ers are a scarce commodity, and they can demand more because the market will bear it. This understanding is critical because it affects the way you deal with requests like pay raises. If you walk in thinking, “They feel so entitled,” you are going to deal with them differently than if you are thinking, “Their demands are not personal, it’s just a matter of economics.”
Everyone Wants to Learn
I’ve had people come tell me, “If I know an employee’s generation, I can develop a training system for them; their age is all I need to know.” I find that outlook rather frightening, in large part because our research found surprisingly high levels of similarity across generations. In other words, age is not the critical piece of information people think it is.
When we asked respondents about learning on the job, 97% across generations said it was important . . . and when do 97% of people agree on anything? This finding is particularly important because it means you can walk in assuming most people of every generation want to learn; you don’t have to spend time convincing them. Happily, 90% of respondents reported they were learning on the job.
Why do people want to learn? Many respondents said the work contract has changed: they don’t think they have a job for life. Their desire to maintain their viability on the job market creates a driving desire to learn. Again, happily, 79% said they were developing skills they need for future. What’s important for employers to realize is that on-the-job learning is about as important as pay when it comes to retention, and that can be especially important for younger people who are bumping up against non-retiring Baby Boomers.
Learning Depends More on Level than on Age
So people of all generations are motivated to learn. But what do they want to learn? The common wisdom holds that older people want training on big picture things like vision and strategy, while younger people can’t see the big picture and therefore want only skills and tactics. Yet, when we offered respondents 40 different areas of learning, there were no substantial differences among the generations in what training they wanted.
When we looked at level-in-organization, however, we found a strong pattern. Everyone wants leadership training. As people move from professional to executive positions, their desire for skills training goes down, while their desire for strategy, vision, managing change, and team building goes up. Only those in management positions are strongly interested in strategic planning. Therefore, if you want to know what training someone wants (and believes that they need), it is more productive to look at their position in the organization than their age.
Though level and age are highly correlated, we found that position in the organization was more relevant to what people wanted to learn than their age was. In other words: a 30-year-old executive and a 50-year-old executive are likely to want the same development, and what they want is going to be different from a 30-year-old and a 50-year-old professional.
Surprising Facts about Computer-based Training
How do people want to learn new skills? We gave respondents 15 options, including three that were computer based. Before we began the study, many people assured us: “Younger people want to do everything on the computer, and older people don’t want to touch the computer at all.”
What we found was remarkably consistent across the generations. When it comes to soft skills, such as leadership and communication, respondents from every single generation rated “on the job” as their first choice; computer-based options did not appear in the top five choices for any generation.
With hard skills, such as accounting and project management, older workers said they preferred live classroom instruction, while younger groups still liked on-the-job learning best. What explains this discrepancy? Our best guess is that many younger people are in school after work, so they are already putting in classroom time and would prefer learning through some other method.
Surprisingly, Late Boomers were most likely to say they wanted computer-based training for hard skills. Why is that? We theorized that since Late Boomers are more frequently in management and upper management, they may perceive computer-based training as the most efficient use of their time.
Everybody Wants a Coach
One of the most striking findings of our research is that everyone – regardless of age or level – wants a coach. Across generations, nearly 85% of each generation said they wanted a coach, someone who helps and advises them on their job, career, and leadership development. There were some variations across age and level. Early X-ers wanted more focus on their careers, while professionals wanted more focus on their job, and managers wanted more focus on leadership development.
What form do employees want their coaching to take? I have heard that web-based coaching is the new thing, and that young people in particular want coaching over the Internet. In fact, our data show that an overwhelming majority of every generation say they want face-to-face coaching. And the majority of employees don’t just want it face-to-face, they want it frequently, as often as every week or every other week.
This would seem to pose a practical dilemma. How can employers possibly fulfill this widespread desire for frequent, face-to-face coaching? First, let’s remember the old maxim, “The best way to learn is to teach.” Second, it is helpful to realize that in many cases what people want is simply someone to listen to them, and luckily that role can be filled by peers. Third, when we asked employees, more than 75% said they thought they could be coaches, and that number increased with age and level in the organization. One possible solution, then, is to use your own employees as coaches. Of course some training would be required, but more than training, employees would need time to serve as coaches for one another.
The Bottom Line
You can’t change the birth rate from 20 or 30 years ago, but you can accelerate the development of the leadership talent you already have. The ace up your sleeve is that 97% of people of all generations want to learn on the job, and such development is arguably as important to retention as pay. But you need to remember that what people want to learn is related to their job, not to their age. Given that nearly everybody wants a coach, I believe using employees to coach one another is an efficient, targeted way to develop leadership talent on the job. The best part of the strategy is that you already have a population that wants it.

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