Chapter Corner

Why the Urgent Need for Developing the Next Generation of Leaders

Posted in: Features, September/October 2015

A huge concern of company leaders today is the need to develop the younger generations to become the next leaders. Many current leaders are rapidly closing in on retirement age and the need or desire to leave day-to-day operations. America is in the process of a very dramatic demographic readjustment. The two younger generations, Generation X and Millennials (Gen Y) combined will make up the majority of the workforce within the next two years.

Projections show that by 2020, in just a little over five years, nearly 50 percent of the workforce will be comprised of Millennials with the remaining 50 percent comprised of 25 percent Gen X and the remaining 25 percent consisting of the last of the Boomer generation. That means half of your employees are likely to be in their twenties and thirties, and the majority of the current Boomer leaders will be past retirement age. As many authorities have pointed out, if this is not addressed now, there will be critical leadership gaps.

Generational Tendencies and Myths

It is no wonder company owners and leaders are concerned about effectively leading and developing these next generations, in order to prepare them for what lies ahead. Adding to the challenge of this task is the perceptions each generation has of other generations. Some of today’s leaders struggle with the perception that the younger generations are not as motivated and are not willing to do the work necessary.

Nextgen.gifHave you thought or heard the phrase, “This next generation doesn’t have the same work ethic we do. They want to go home at 5:00 p.m. and aren’t willing to work hard like we are.” The good news is that this is generally a myth. The incoming generations may have different strengths, but that does not mean they are not motivated—it might mean they strive for success in a different way.

The two younger generations have a strong desire to maintain a balance between their business and personal lives, while the Boomers tend to be more focused on business. It is possible that each generation’s attitude could be a result of what they experienced with their parents while growing up. Younger generations raised in an environment where their parents were often away from home due to their careers, might decide they are going to be more focused on family. This might be the attitude of some younger employees when they leave work on time, so they can be with their family or spend time on personal interests. However, many in younger generations express that they are open to taking work home, to do after they have family or personal time!

What Makes the Generations Unique?

An interesting survey of each of the four generations was done in 2010 by the Pew Research Center. What do you think was the one common answer from each generation when asked, “What makes your generation unique?” Amusingly, each generation replied that it was smarter than the other generations!

Today, it is no surprise that the two younger generations consider themselves to be better skilled in technology. However, the same Pew study showed that Generation X considered work ethic as its second strongest attribute. In fact, in many areas, Gen Xers do not see themselves to be vastly different from Boomers. However, Millennials see themselves as quite a bit different from Boomers.

The Generational Leadership Attitudes chart below shows the leadership style each generation prefers. It also shows the role that work plays in their lives, and it’s no wonder we are having challenges understanding each other! It is easy to see why someone from an older generation, who is more comfortable with autocratic leadership, would be challenged initially with an employee who wants a more cooperative or self-directed style. Of course, the challenge is shared by younger employees who have difficulty relating to a request made by a Boomer with a “because I said so” attitude.

Generation Year Born Age Percent of Workforce
Silent 1928 - 1945            70 to 87         5%
Boomers 1946 - 1964 51 to 69 40%
Generation X              1965 - 1980 35 to 50 30%
(Generation Y)
1981 - 2000 15 to 34 25%
Source: Pew Center Research      


Developing Generation X Leaders

The group that naturally is in the best position to take the leadership baton is Gen X employees who are between the ages of 35 and 50. Though they are the smallest of the three generations, they are in the prime of their abilities and work experience. Being between the other two generations, they are uniquely positioned to understand both of them to a much better degree. If developed effectively they can be a “bridge” between the Boomer and Millennial generations.

Gen Xers have motivations similar to Boomers when it comes to many work attitudes, yet they also have a good understanding of the technology and attitudes so important to Millennials. Additionally, they have enough experience to understand and effectively apply skills acquired in leadership training on the job.

Millennials (Gen Y) Development

The younger group of potential leaders also needs leadership development. The oldest employees in this group will turn 35 within the next year. Take stock of each person’s skill gaps and determine what is needed to move them to the next level of performance.

We need a development strategy for everyone in the organization. Having effectively executed training plans will help ensure the proper resources and skills are available, when they are needed, to move the company forward.

Why Leadership Development is Needed

Most companies would not dream of having an employee operate an expensive piece of equipment without training them and measuring their performance, yet this is done every day with those in leadership. Many people get thrust into positions of leadership when they have had little or no leadership training. Employees often get promoted into management on the basis of their technical knowledge and skills, or perhaps just their seniority alone. They were good at doing the technical part of the job, so it seems natural they should be put in a position to lead others.

Generational Leadership Attributes

Millennial - Y
Ages 15-34
Generation X
Ages 35-50 
Ages 51-69 
Ages 70-87 
Climb ladder with good ideas Climb ladder by working smarter     Climb ladder by working harder  Climb ladder with longevity, loyalty 
Cooperative leadership style Self-directed leadership style Participative leadership style  Autocratic leadership style 
Wants to help create the rules       Skeptical - not fond of rules  Love/hate with authority  Respectful; follow the rules 
Work is a self-expression.
Wants work/life balance
Wants a work/life balance  Tends to be workaholic  Task focused 

 Author compilation from variety of sources.

However, leadership is about getting things done effectively through others, not about doing it yourself. People promoted into leadership without training most often do not have the skills to actually get the job done effectively through others. Frequently they fall into the attitude trap of “I guess I’ll just have to do it myself!”

Good leadership development takes focus and attention over a period of time. Just as you cannot teach a child to ride a bike at a seminar, you cannot teach someone how to properly apply leadership skills by sending them to a one day event. Doing so is throwing time, money, and energy down a black hole!

When involving someone in leadership development, use the same methods you would with technical training. First, know the specific performance area to be addressed. Then determine how you will measure whether the training was a success, that is, can the individual demonstrate the skill back on the job? Have methods in place to reinforce the training. Avoid ‘fire hose training’ – providing too much information at once so it cannot be absorbed and applied. Instead, space the training out over time.

Linda and Tery Tennant are partners with Attainment Incorporated, a 26-year franchise of Leadership Management International. LMI is a worldwide leadership development and performance improvement company, which was named #1 in “Training Programs” by Entrepreneur Magazine. Linda and Tery facilitate leaders in improving their leadership skills and increasing employee performance and engagement. The results have been numerous small company leaders taking their businesses to the next level. Prior to founding Attainment, Linda was a vice president of an international company, and also trained thousands of managers and sales people worldwide. Tery was formerly in operations management and management consulting, where he led several large teams, and received numerous leadership awards. Linda and Tery have presented their engaging workshops from Alaska to Florida, and their articles on leadership and productivity improvement have been widely published. Their goal is for you to leave with at least one idea you can put into action when you get home, that will make you more effective.