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Alicia Blain

Generation X


Since I left corporate to start my business a few years ago, I’ve had a steady stream of inquiries from friends and colleagues about getting out of corporate. For some reason, over the last few months, those inquiries have increased significantly.  Now these are bright, talented individuals making very decent incomes who are absolutely miserable and disgusted with corporate life.  I point that out because many times people think it’s just the 20-somethings that are complaining about corporate life. No, folks.  It’s not just the Gen Yers – it’s Xers and lots of Boomers doing the complaining.

In every case , without exception, when I dig a little bit to find out what is at the root of the unhappiness, it turns out to be poor leadership.  There are many reasons given.  Here’s the top 10 list of complaints:

  1. My boss has no clue what’s going on in the team.
  2. My boss is a very good [fill in the expertise – salesperson, accountant, lawyer] but he’s a lousy manager.
  3. My boss doesn’t stick up for us and caves in to the demands of other departments or higher ups.
  4. The staff isn’t getting a raise but the higher ups are getting outrageous bonuses this year.
  5. My boss is so afraid of losing her job that she refuses to listen to new ideas we’ve presented that can help the team.
  6. My boss listens to people who are out of touch with the realities of what the team faces.
  7. My boss is not well respected by the higher ups or his colleagues and is ineffective.
  8. My boss is just holding on long enough to get retirement.
  9. My boss has a sink or swim mentality.
  10. My boss has no time for his employees.

Any of these ring a bell?  Which ones resonate the most with you?  What complaint isn’t on there that you feel strongly about? For me, the ones that would put me over the edge were #1, 3, 5 and 7.

After listening to so many people repeat these reasons over and over again, I wondered how so many leaders could be so clueless about how their employees felt? I realize that employees aren’t going to volunteer that information to their boss even if he or she asks. I also know that employees aren’t always forthcoming in giving that information on employee engagement surveys no matter how much the company tries to convince them their answers are “confidential”.

So I decided to post the top 10 complaints here in the hopes that leaders would read them and ask themselves 3 probing questions.

  1. Who is someone inside or outside the company that I trust that can give me an honest assessment of how I am perceived as a leader?  We all know people in our careers that are honest, trustworthy and discreet that can help us answer whether our perception of how we lead matches how others see us lead.  The answer might surprise you.
  2. Do any of these complaints describe my peers or bosses? Can any of them remotely describe me? Many times if you can spot these behaviors in others around you, it makes you stop and reflect on your own and causes you to take some time to be introspective.
  3. What is one thing I can do today to ensure that my perception of how I lead is aligned to how others see me as a leader?

Of course, to answer these questions truthfully require you, as a leader, to be objective about yourself.  But more importantly, it requires you to still CARE about being an effective leader. From the sounds of the heightened grumblings I’m hearing lately, that may be the missing ingredient.

So my question for you is: are you one of the leaders described in this Top 10 list?  What are you doing to make sure you’re not?

I have to share a wonderful and uplifting experience I had yesterday that confirms once again what a wonderful opportunity we as leaders have to change people’s lives for the better.

I ran into one of my previous employess at a networking event.  We were both excited to see one another and we took some time to catch up with what we were doing.  I was happy to see that he had followed my career advice and pursued a job he was passionate about but didn’t think he could land.  I knew he could and in fact, he did. He’s a Generation Xer and they tend to be a little cynical about the whole corporate thing. 

Anyway, when it came my turn to give him an update, he got kind of quiet.  I was surprised at his reaction and I asked him what was up.  He then asked me a cryptic question. He asked if I was ever going back to corporate.  I told him that I would
“never say never” but that I was pursuing my dream and I enjoyed what I was doing.  Again, he got quiet.  Then he said ” I guess I won’t get the chance to work for you again, will I”?  Now it was my turn to be surprised.  I asked him what he meant and his explanation touched my heart.

“I  miss working for you”, he said. Wow!  I was totally surprised.   The bottom line was that  he valued the time I took with him, to mentor and groom him while he worked for me. Out of all the things we did together, it was the time I took to connect with him that this young man valued & remembered the most.   I told him how much his kind words meant to me and that he could reach out to me anytime he felt he needed to.   I gave him a big hug and thanked him before I drifted off on a cloud to talk with others at the event.

I share this story because as leaders we often forget the impact we can have on our team by giving of ourselves. By taking time and getting to know the people that work for us we can make a positive difference in their lives.  I could have chosen not to spend time getting to know this young man but by taking the time, I was able to steer him in a direction that fed his passion instead of leaving him to figure it out for himself, if he ever could.  That felt good.   What felt even better was that I knew that if I ever went back to corporate and needed to build staff, I could count on him to join me.  Imagine how easy that would make my life.

For me, the best part of my corporate leadership experience was being able to make a difference to my team and to others that came behind me.  The concept of giving of yourself to your staff is so important and so rewarding that I often wonder why it’s not practiced more in today’s organizations.  I know all the reasons we can list not to do it but in the end, we are the ones that get the short end of the stick.   I’ve always felt that I received much more from those that I have led than they have received from me.  In giving of my time and my commitment I received countless rewards from my team not the least of which was loyalty.  When the experts say that loyalty is dead, I’m not sure it is.  But it’s up to us to foster it in our employees. It’s not going to happen by itself.

So I want to honor all those wonderful employees that work for us, that make what we do possible.   Without them our jobs would be impossible.  My hope is that they in turn help those coming up behind them so that in giving, they can receive so much more.

In our current school systems it does but according to James Paul McGee, an expert in games and education, it doesn’t need to be.  There was a great article in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine written by reporter Sara Corbett titled “Learning by Playing: Video Games in the Classroom”. It showcased a school in NYC called Quest to Learn where digital games are front and center in educating sixth and seventh graders.  The school is the brainchild of a Generation Xer called Katie Salen and a group of game and curriculum designers that are looking at innovative ways to teach children.  According to the article, the school is ” one of a handful of  ’demonstration sites’  for innovative technology-based instructional methods and is part of a larger effort on the city’s part to create and experiment with new models for schools”.

Wow!  Can you believe they used innovation and experimentation in the same sentence as education?  Crazy, huh?  But very encouraging.  For years as I’ve spoken in front of teachers and educators, I have talked about digital games and how educational they can be for children.  Everyone has this incorrect notion that video games are all bad and violent.  Yes, there are some games that are like that but many others that are very educational.   I’ve actually read a lot of  James Paul McGee’s book on the topic but more importantly, I’ve seen it myself.

Although I think that the younger Millennials have taken more to digital games than their older counterparts who are already working,  video games are part of the  Millennial experience.  I’ve said many times that Millennials don’t see failure as a bad thing.  This comes directly from playing video games.  Failure in a video game just means you have to work harder to get to the next level and learn from your mistakes.  Isn’t that a much healthier way of looking at failure than seeing it as a disaster?  As anyone who has become successful at something will tell you, they learned most when they failed at something than when they excelled in it.  How can you innovate if you are afraid to fail?

Yet, most of our educational system is based on the fact that failing is not good.  Then people wonder why kids drop out of school. It’s rewarding to see that a school and it’s teachers are embracing experimentation as a way to break away from 20th Century methods that are frayed at the seams and in direct conflict with living in the 21st Century.   Although it’s too soon to tell what the results of their innovative approach is,  in my book, they’ve already won because they saw a problem and took action.  These teachers were frustrated with what they saw in the educational system today and took a chance to change it.   Experimenting with new concepts and techniques is the only way that educators will forge ahead and bring much needed change to education.

The Millennials in my team showed me that failure was not a disaster.  I had forgotten that. Because in a corporate setting, very much like an educational one, failure is often not an option.  It is not seen as a chance to get better at something or to innovate but rather as something to avoid.  You don’t get a merit increase or yearly bonus if you fail, do you?

But sometimes you need to fail to find innovative solutions to things.  If leaders don’t create an environment where it’s okay to fail, their teams will shy away from trying new things.  Failure is at the very heart of experimentation and we need to find ways to get comfortable with it.  One way to do that is to create an Idea Incubator in your team.  The concept is simple:  give people time to hash out an idea and see what happens.  There aren’t many rules associated with the incubator – the more free flowing and unencumbered, the better. 

What we found when we allowed the Idea Incubator to flourish is that when people are allowed to come up with an idea or a concept and can experiment with it, a lot of good comes out of it.  The idea itself may not lead to anything concrete such as a new product or service but most times, it will lead to a better way of doing something or another idea that does have potential.  The key is to see the process as a way of getting better at something not as failing at something when it doesn’t pan out.   That is a critical component for innovation to thrive in a team.  It’s also critical for success in the 21st Century.

So what about you?  Is failure a disaster or just a way to get better at something?

My assistant, Espy, was in her late twenties when she began to work for me years ago.  She was a Generation Xer “Hispanic-American” and had come to this country in her late teens.  She spoke English & Spanish fluently and had assimilated well into the American culture.   As I first began my Millennial lab experiment in the office, I did a lot of  generational research and read many of the books written by the leading  generational experts.  I would often document and reference some of the key research and my assistant would help me organize the material.  After she helped me, I’d notice that Espy would have a perplexed frown on her face with the information I was finding. 

So one day I asked her why she always had a perplexed look on her face when she was organizing the generational data.  Her response was surprising.  I can’t remember everything she said but her last comment stayed with me.   She said “It doesn’t depict who I am”. Her comment intrigued me so I asked her to elaborate.  The bottom line was that she related better to the traits and values of  Baby Boomers & Veterans than of Generation Xers and the reasons why became evident as she explained.  Espy spent most of her childhood in Nicaragua.  None of the current events that shaped Generation X in the US were relatable to her since they were US centric.  She was influenced by a completely different set of events – those specific to Nicaragua when she was a young girl. 

Those current events she experienced in Nicaragua gave her a set of traits & values that didn’t line up with those of  Generation Xers in the US. The traits & characteristics generally associated with Generation X in the US - self-reliance, latch key kids, children of divorce, a bit cynical, tech savvy – did not describe Espy.  The traits that did were honor, hard work, optimism, paying one’s dues, respecting authority.  These traits are a combination of those we use in the US to describe Veterans and Baby Boomers.

Interestingly enough, Espy’s cousin who had come to the US earlier - when she was 4 years old, related not only to the current events but to the traits that define Generation X in the US.  Also, the fact that Espy grew up in Nicaragua gave her a different frame of reference than someone who may have grown up in Colombia or India or Singapore during those same years. 

That conversation with Espy was powerful because it made me realize that I could not rely on just the general distinctions made about the generations but rather that I had to incorporate an ethnic and racial layer to truly represent all members of my team. As I said in my last post, typically this ethno-racial layer is omitted from generational studies and discussions. It is assumed that all people that fall in one of the four generational categories have had the same general experiences growing up that led to the traits they exhibit. Although I understand the basis of that assumption, Espy proved that it does not work in all cases.    

As I read the statistics that show that the US will increasingly become a minority majority, I wondered just how much of the workforce could relate to Espy’s generational dilemma?  Just what percentage of Millennials entering the workforce would be part of the minority majority and would ethnicity and race become a bigger component of the generational conversation than it had in the past.  Since my team was 90% Multi-Cultura, l I realized I had another rare opportunity to answer those questions. My experiments in this area were enlightening and I will share the results with you from time to time.

So if you’re wondering why a certain Millennial or Xer on your team is not displaying the general characteristics of her generation, you now have a clue as to why that is. The more we as  leaders understand our staff and what makes them tick, what motivates them and inspires them, the better able we will be to effectively lead them and harness their potential.  That has always been such a fulfilling part of my job.  In the 21st Century, the “one size fits all” style of leadership doesn’t work well.  The more customized the approach, the more connected you will be to your team and the more they will connect with you.

Experts believe that Brian Davis paid well over 1 million dollars for his recent behavior on the golf course.  Many of you are probably thinking that Brian Davis did something bad, right?  The media is constantly inundating us with all the bad things that sports figures and celebrities do that this question automatically makes us think negatively.  But not in this case.

Here’s the deal:  Brian Davis is a 36 year old British Generation Xer who recently played in the PGA Tour at the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head, S.C. Now I know what you’re all thinking:  I keep saying I don’t like sports but I keep bringing up examples of things that happen in the sports world.  Am I secretly a sports fan?  Truly, I am not but it just happens that really cool things are happening with sports figures that I think are worth highlighting. 

So Brian Davis is hitting onto the green in a sudden-death playoff  and apparently his golf club hits a reed when he does his backswing.  Well, as I’m sure all golfers know and I did not, a reed is considered a loose impediment and moving a loose impediment is apparently a big NO-NO in golf.   It came as a shock to me that there actually is a PGA rule that prohibits moving a loose impediment!  So instead of keeping quiet and seeing if the tournament director catches the mistake, Brian calls a penalty on himself.  Yes, he actually highlighted the mistake and requested that the two stroke penalty be applied to his game.  This decision automatically put him in second place giving the win to his opponent, Jim Furyk.

Is that not an unbelievable and refreshing story?  I was reading about this in my hard copy version of September’s edition of Success Magazine.  As I am writing this post, the online version of the September issue is not yet available but here’s the link to Success Magazine.  I’m sure the September issue will go online shortly and you can read it.  The name of the article is “The Most Important Golf Story of the Year (That you Likely Never Heard About).  The reporter’s name is Don Yaeger.

The article goes on to explain that interviewers and golf experts told Brian Davis that his act of integrity cost him over $1 million dollars in pay and sponsorship opportunities. Brian’s answer: “I just saw it as doing what I was supposed to do”

Here are the 2 things I love most about this story.  The first is that Brian was inundated with emails, texts and letters that thanked him for this wonderful act of integrity.  Imagine how many people became his fans and admirers by his decision to lose instead of compromising his principles.  I don’t even know who he is and I’m a big fan now!  The second thing I like is more related to leadership. It has to do with the notion of leading by example which I think is a forgotten leadership trait these days.   In the article, Brian talks about how he promised his son that he would buy a puppy as soon as he won a tournament.  So technically, even though he won the tournament, he didn’t officially win it.  Brian felt it was more important for his son to know that You have to do the right thing, even it if looks like it costs you.  I wanted him to know I finished second, but can hold my head high”.   What a great example of doing what is right regardless of consequences.

Oh and by the way,  Brian did not get the puppy because as he said in the article ” I wouldn’t be a good dad if I just got the dog anyway”.  Here is a Generation Xer not just telling us but actually showing us how to do the right thing.  I can already hear people disagreeing with me saying that Brian’s actions are more representative of his personal convictions than of his generation. You can certainly look at it that way and you would be right.  But, when highlighting people in my blogs, I always try to connect the person with his or her generation. This helps maximize and showcase the positive traits of the person’s generation wherever possible.  Too often, generational discussions center around negative impressions when  it’s more productive and useful to bring out the positive.   As a member of Gen X,  the generation that is often forgotten and overshadowed by Baby Boomers and Millennials, Brian shows the rest of us what it’s like to be a true leader living and leading proudly with integrity and respect. Kudos to Gen Xers like Brian Davis!  

What about you?  Does your integrity have a price?