Category Archives: Consistancy

Leadership and the Generations

This is another of those posts that seemed to have started out as a great idea, and I knew just what I wanted to say. As I got into it further my commentary took me in another direction. Undaunted by this I adjusted the title and tried to edit and align the ideas that I had with the direction I took. After doing that, I actually kind of like where it took me.

I just read an article purporting to examine the new demographics associated with the latest generational group known as “Millennials”. Generations are normally “defined” by the major global events associated with the starting and ending of the generational cycle. For those of you that are not familiar with the various generational names and eras in the US, they are as follows:

2000/2001 – Present – New Silent Generation or Generation Z
1980-2000 – Millennials or Generation Y
1965-1979 – Generation X
1946-1964 – Baby Boom
1925-1945 – Silent Generation

This generational breakdown got me to thinking about how leaders need to be both attuned to and flexible enough to adjust their leadership styles to the various generations that they must both lead and deal with. The generations above all come from different eras, and have had their approaches to business (and life for that matter) evolve from very different economic and life experiences.

The first is the silent generation. They are defined as the generation that ends with the ending of the last great global conflict, World War two. It should be interesting to note that for all intents and purposes, the silent generation has at this point by and large retired from the work force. Someone born in 1945, the last of the silent generation years would be sixty nine this year.

Next are the baby boomers. They are defined as following World War two and ending at approximately the time of the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. The baby boomers at this time are also aging out. The youngest and last of them will be fifty this year and are surely beginning to contemplate retirement as well. The older baby boomers have probably already retired. Either way they have a different set of goals and drivers than those members of the following and younger generations.

Next is Generation X and as the name might indicate they seem to be a relative unknown when it comes to defining traits and characteristics. They have seen man reach the moon (a product of a previous generational world and ambition), but are not usually associated with the major scientific or social upheavals of this time. They are usually referred to as the “MTV” generation. The major defining event that is usually associated with the end point for this generational group might be the Iran Hostage crisis. The majority of Generation X should be considered to be in their professional primes.

I apologize for the short generational genealogy discussion, but I wanted to set the table for the next generation, the Millennials, or Generation Y. They are the generation that is bracketed by the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the end of the twentieth century, which as we all know was mostly associated with the global phenomenon called “Y2K”. This is the generation that is now either entering or is already early on in their business careers. I recently read an article about them and as usual it got me to thinking. 

The article I read about the Millennials was in Bloomberg, and since we all know that they do not have any sort of agenda and would only print the unvarnished truth, it must be so, right?

In this article Bloomberg discussed several of the demographics and hence characteristics specifically associated with the Millennial generation. As a member of a previous generation, I won’t say which previous generation, but you can safely assume it is not the “Silent Generation”, it is hard not to compare your own experiences to those as attributed to the Millennials. I would assume this to be the case for just about everyone who is not a Millennial.

Perhaps these differences in experiences and demographics can somehow be traced to the defining events that ended the previous generational era and were the bellwether for the one to come. It seems that the magnitude of the events that are used to define a generation might provide us some insight in the shaping of the demographic of that generation.

The end of World war two the global conflict that cost millions of lives was the start of and probably the most shaping and influencing event of the Baby Boomer generation. They saw the creation of the atomic bomb, the creation of the space race, the rise of the “Cold War” and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The magnitude of these types of events is difficult to overstate.

With the assassination of President Kennedy we had the start of the Generation X. They experienced the accompanying loss of innocence associated with that event. It is also thought that this loss of innocence was the impetus for many of the other events they saw. They also saw the turmoil associated with the civil rights movements and changes, the escalation and ultimate end of the prolonged and increasingly unpopular Vietnam War, a man land on the moon, but as I said before, they are mostly associated with the rise of music videos and the phenomenon called MTV. Go figure.

That brings us to the Millennials. Their generation is bracketed by events including the Iranian Hostage Crisis where fifty two American diplomats were held hostage in post revolutionary Iran for a little more than a year at the start, and the “Y2K” furor where everything from global anarchy to the absolute end of the civilized world were predicted in association with the belief that the technology that we had all become so dependent on would not be able to accommodate the change from a “19xx” date delineation to a “20xx” date delineation at the end. Really.

Millennials have grown up during one of the most prolonged periods of sustained growth in economic history. They had a front seat (in front of the television) in witnessing one of the fastest, highest technology and most successful military campaigns in the history. And it was on television every night. In the first Gulf War they got to see the birth of both Stealth and Smart technologies. I too remember watching this event and how to me it resembled the new video games that were then a budding industry.

In short it would seem at least in my opinion that the Millennial generation was defined by both an economic and political “Boom” period. Maybe it may only appear to be so good in my own retrospect in comparison to today’s economic situation. Perhaps it is just my longing for the “good old days” that we have all always heard about. I do however think that we are all, to some general extent products of our times, and this period in general was a good time by just about any measure. Unfortunately all Booms eventually end.

Could this period be the beginning of the “entitlement” mentality that seems to be infusing itself into both our political and economic fabrics? If everything was so good in your formative years could you feel entitled to everything being good going forward? I don’t think this is just a Millennial generational issue. They just happen to be the generation entering or already in the work force that is the product of this period.

Regardless, the business leader of today is going to have to understand what has shaped the outlook of each of the members of their team. They need to understand the motivational factors as well as the expectations associated with both the generation in general, as well as the individual specifically.

No generation is homogeneous in its make-up. There will be Millennials that do not feel entitled to good times, just as there will probably be Baby Boomers that do feel entitled. The leaders of this generation, and the generations that follow, are going to need to be able to recognize the breadth of both the gen
erational and individual factors that motivate, drive and affect their teams, as well as have the flexibility to adapt their leadership styles to the generational diversity of their teams.

Being Liked

I think it is pretty safe to say that we all want to be “liked”. There are few people in business that set out to be disliked. They may end up being disliked, but I don’t think they started out with that as an objective. However, there do seem to be many business leaders who it appears do set out to try to be liked by everyone. While it is a good leadership characteristic to be able to try and get along with everyone, I don’t think a leader has to try to be liked by everyone.

Business leaders are vested with the responsibility of setting the direction for the business. This includes the strategic longer term direction as well as the shorter term tactics and steps required to achieve the longer term goal. This means that leaders have to make choices. Making choices means that some people will agree with your choices and some people will not. Healthy disagreement within an organization is a desirable trait. It makes you continually check your choices and directions against differing views to make sure that you are not missing any overlooked piece of information. It fills gaps and strengthens the overall plan.

Still, making decisions, especially difficult or contentious decisions will mean that some people will “like” the decision, and some will not. Each individual’s position as it pertains to the decision will in turn be associated with the leader who made the decision. However if the decision is clearly made and the reasons and criteria that were applied are well communicated everyone can respect the decision. That can be a key point. While some people may not like the decision, and by extension the leader that made it, if they are provided with some insight into the factors that have lead to that decision they can respect it.

Providing insight and understanding into leadership decisions does not mean having to explain why one direction was taken instead of another. That would mean that everybody in the organization would have to be supplied the same aspects and information as the leader for each decision. That would be far too cumbersome and slow. Economic theory states that businesses exist to provide earnings to their owners (either stockholders or other types of equity holders). They do this by providing value to their customers, and from that generated value creating profit and earnings.

When leaders make decisions that are in support of these basic business precepts, it is hard to argue with them. As leaders they will have to make difficult decisions in association with these directions. It will fall to them to decide which projects go forward and which ones do not when limited resources dictate that the business cannot sustain multiple investments. Some will like the decisions, and those whose projects have been discontinued may not. It will be the responsibility of the leader to decide if market conditions dictate a reduction in staffing, when it will happen and who will be affected. The list goes on.

Leadership and management mean making decisions. There have been documented instances where management could not decide on the strategic direction for the business. They decided to set two strategies in progress and see which one did better, then choose it. In theory this would indicate that at best they were wasting half of their scarce resources. In reality with only half a full commitment to each initiative, neither worked out well. The leaders wanted to be liked by all but ended up not being respected by anyone.

There have been instances where leaders have tried to avoid being disliked or having to do the politically unpleasant. This can be manifested in the “peanut butter” type staff reductions that occur where all business units within the overall organization, performing and underperforming alike, are reduced in response to overall profitability pressures. Instead of being guided by business profitability and customer value, and focusing on those specific business units that are relatively unprofitable, other non-performance based criteria clouded a critical decision. Invariably this leads to management eroding the support of their respective teams, and again an overall loss of respect for the leaders.

A business leader does not need to be liked by everyone. A good leader will be respected for the quality and timeliness of their decisions. If a leader fails to make a decision, or the right decision based on the acknowledged business drivers and available information, it will not result in the leader being liked by more people or disliked by fewer people. Invariably it will lead to a reduction in the team’s performance as it becomes more recognized that performance may not be the primary decision criteria. It seems that managing a responsibility or a business from the aspect of trying to minimize the number of people who dislike you, invariably results in a less healthy business, and nobody likes that.

“When Growth Stalls”

I recently had the opportunity to listen to Steve McKee, the author of the book “When Growth Stalls” speak at a conference. He studied the phenomenon of how some small companies on a very good growth trajectory seemed to stall out and plateau as they became medium sized and larger companies. I think the 4 basic topics that he covered are applicable across the market in general today, not just for smaller growing companies.


1.      Lack of Alignment: Steve spoke about the fact that as management teams grew with the company, their alignment tended to vary more. I think that this is the case today with various issues such as when “revenue growth at all costs” groups do battle with “profitability at all costs” groups within company leadership teams. It is easy to say you want both, but it is a very precarious balancing act to try and implement.


2.      Loss of Focus: Similar to lack of alignment, loss of focus deals with a decline in the passion and commitment to success that drove the company’s earlier success.  It seems to have become a “job”, not an avocation or career. Good enough has in fact become good enough.


3.      Loss of Nerve: When issues arise it now seems that the first (and sometimes only approach) is to scale back. We now scale back on R&D investment. We scale back on Marketing. We scale back on what we need for future success. It is here that he asked the best question I have heard in a long time:


“What do we need to do to remember that this economic crisis is a gift?”


Or in other words, what can we do with respect to our relative positioning to our competitors in the market to be more successful than them. Times of instability can be times of market opportunity if properly approached.


We seemed to have forgotten this concept across the board in the market lately.


4.      Finally he spoke about business and marketing inconsistency and how “stuck” companies seem to change these items more / too quickly. As every business struggles to move forward they continue to try “new” things. New organizational structures. New marketing campaigns. What they fail to notice is that change also starts everything over. You must give each new structure or campaign time to be successful. It is a failure to stay with a bad structure or campaign too long, but it is also a failure to not give them enough time to be successful.


Steve McKee struck a chord with me and I will try to use and apply some of the comments and approaches he mentioned. Hopefully we will all be able to get the system“unstuck”, and moving forward in a more healthy market in the near future.