Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Are Baby Boomers to blame for our leadership crisis?

As I watched the debt ceiling crisis unfold in Washington I kept thinking back to the what Tammy Erickson said about baby boomers in her book “What’s Next Gen X?”  In short, one of the key features of a baby boomer is they are driven to win, for winning’s sake.  Our congress is full of baby boomers who were elected by baby boomers with one purpose: winning. 

I believe this is creating a leadership crisis not only in our government but in our organizations as well.  Why?  Well, winning is a matter of perception.  Who won in the debt ceiling crisis?  The country?  Current economic indicators say no.  Republicans? Democrats?  It depends on who you talk to.  I believe that in our two party system “winning” is starting to mean keeping the other side from getting what it wants.

This is true in our corporate culture as well.  Listen to a baby boomer leader talk and you will almost always hear success indicators that are based on a fundamental idea of winning, even when the “win” has no value in real terms to the organization.  To the baby boomer leader the “win” is more important than the result.  The current, on going, recession was fueled by this drive to win by baby boomer lead organizations who lead the way in making it possible to purchase homes we can’t afford on credit we have no business obtaining all for one purpose: finding new ways to say we’ve won, even when we really haven't. 

This emperor-has-no-clothes approach is a plague and if generational researchers are right the baby boomers have no intention of giving up any of their influence anytime soon.  That would be, after all, losing.   As baby boomers stay in jobs longer than their predecessors, push down wages of those beneath them so they can earn more and continue to make decisions based on short term wins in lieu of long-term victories we will only see them bail out when they feel like doing so is a win for them. 

I believe the only way to reverse this dangerous trend is to change the terms. Like most other messes that baby boomers have made, this one is going to be left to under paid, under positioned Gen X leaders to clean up.  We have to do the one thing we are good at: change the conversation and alter perspectives.

As Gen X leaders we must play a crucial part in helping the Baby Boomers turn their drive to win at all costs away from meaningless accomplishments they will often choose in order to be able to declare success and point it towards accomplishments of substance.  We do this by asking simple questions like: “How is this a good thing for our organization?”  “How does this benefit our team?”  “What effect will this have on our future?”  While we may get met with some frustration from our boomer bosses and risk being seen as party poopers, they will appreciate the focus in the long run.

I saw this first hand when I was hired as a program coordinator in my organization.  Senior directors in my organization were in the habit of drawing attention to large contracts or big revenue programs they were in charge of.  I started asking a simple question, “what is the net on that deal?”  What we found was that many of these big contracts and programs were consuming almost all if not more than the revenue they brought in.  That’s not a winner, that’s a leach.  We were able to change our view of winning from the size of contract to the margin we were going to make on the contract.  When we did those victory driven baby boomers then changed their approach. 

We often hear about how Gen Y and the Baby Boomers get along so well at work and Gen X can get left out of the conversation.  When Gen X stands up and asks hard questions about what their boomer leaders are calling a win Gen Y listens.  While Gen Y and Boomers share a lot, Gen Y and X have a strong-shared belief in being good citizens and making a better world. 

Gen X has the potential to fill a pivotal roll in helping our baby boomer leaders focus their desire to win on things that matter and helping Gen Y learn how to have that conversation.  If you are a baby boomer stop and think about what each win means, not just for you, but for everyone and be sure you communicate that with your team.  Look to your Gen X mangers to help you.  They have a unique perspective and help you create richer and more engaging goals and substance based wins.