Note to the Next Generation of Leaders: Don't Wait for Baby Boomers to Hand Over the Reins
Last week, Rosetta Thurman reported from the front-lines of nonprofit leadership about her experiences at Nonprofit 2020: Issues and Answers from the Next Generation, where much of the talk centered around how to transition leadership from the Baby Boomers to Gen X and the Millenials. You can also read more on the conference here from the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
As a Gen X-er myself, I long ago gave up on the idea that Baby Boomers were going to help me make the transition from front-line worker to leader. Nothing against Boomers, but they have their own issues to worry about, and helping me with my professional development has been pretty low on the list. In fact, I've observed that most Boomers are quite happy where they are and have no intention of moving anytime soon.
Turns out I'm not alone in my evaluation of the situation, as Brazen Careerist Penelope Trunk notes here talking about the "gray ceiling," which is rapidly replacing the glass one we've heard so much about.
So what's an X-er or Millenial to Do?
- Assess your leadership skills--Penelope's article includes some links to some great resources from Jo Miller who coaches people on how to move into executive positions. Check out Jo's leadership assessment tool (PDF), which she uses to help people figure out where to start in addressing leadership development.
- Have a career plan--If you want to go forward, you have to have a plan. This article will give you some resources to get started. You might also want to take a look at these three exercises for exploring what you want in a career and this post on exploring your passions.
- Take charge of your own learning--I've written before about my belief that in a knowledge worker world, the only person who should be in charge of learning is YOU. This is a code that I've lived by for the last 10 years and as a result, I have tripled my income, work from home most of the time and get to work on projects where I can really have some impact. To do this, you might start by getting serious about creating a personal learning environment. As Tom Haskins points out, they're great tools for empowerment.
- Start a portfolio, preferably an online version--I wrote a few days ago on why I think everyone needs a portfolio. If you go this route, check out Helen Barrett's instructions for using a variety of Web 2.0 tools to create a portfolio. You can also check out the eportfolio presentation I just put together (it's in draft, but still some helpful info, I think)
- Get better at self-promotion--A lot of people are uncomfortable selling themselves, but if you want to get anywhere, you have to be willing to do a little self-promotion. Penelope has some good tips for getting started.
- Start blogging--My blog has been a great platform for personal learning, connecting to other people and building my network. Having your own blog helps you develop your voice and a point of view that will be very powerful in developing your leadership skills.
- Get disruptive--If you're not able to assume the mantle of leadership in your current organization, think about starting your own. Disruptive innovations are one way in which you can change the rules of the game and start bringing your own leadership voice to the table. Disruptive strategies bring to the market a more affordable product that is simpler to use. Another way to look at it is to evaluate your current organization or field and think about finding the "blue ocean"--where is there a need that no one is meeting and how can you come up with a tool, resource, process, etc. that helps people get what they want. Sometimes it's good to try to keep playing the game. But sometimes the only way you'll move is if you start a new one.
These are my suggestions for developing your leadership capacities in a world where no one will be doing it for you. What strategies have you used?
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Great advice -- get disruptive! For an employee who wants to be known for more than just doing their job, this is the way to make a rapid break-out move, and establish a reputation as a high-potential/ emerging leader.
Take on a career-defining project, outside the scope of your regular job, by identifying a big endemic problem that no-one in your company wants to solve. Set up a task force of great minds to investigate, even if you don't know a solution.
Women's Leadership Coaaching
Posted by: Jo Miller | August 04, 2007 at 02:34 PM
I'm at the end of the Boomers, and have had a number of conversations over the years about this very thing. Initially it was with my contemporaries and the Gen xers, and it was about starting the next thing, creating new conferences and organizations. It didn't quite feel comfortable though.
I decided to try to shift my thinking. Rather than wonder when the senior level was going to get out of the way, I started looking for ways I could engage them. I stopped focusing on how they could/should help me, and started looking for ways I could help them.
I started to ask them about their perspectives, seeking to understand what was behind the behavior that I was perceiving was shutting my peers out. I've offered to help them with technology, reached out into markets that they have less access to, promoted them, invited them to help. Slowly, I've had more opportunities to work along side of them.
It also feels better to me to be working off of those who have gone before rather than away from them. Not all the time of course, but aligned when appropriate.
Posted by: Christine Martell | August 05, 2007 at 12:07 AM
I realized I skipped the part where I told you I really liked this post, that it got me thinking, and I too have experienced the frustration referred to in many of the links. You have some great pro-active suggestions here.
The hazards of being an introvert. Sometimes I forget to actually say what is rolling around in my head.
Posted by: Christine Martell | August 05, 2007 at 12:46 AM
Jo and Christine--thanks for the great comments. Sounds like you're both suggesting some additional ways to move ahead WITHIN the framework of organizations, rather than outside of them.
Jo, I especially like the idea of volunteering for the "career-changing" project--that's something I did very successfully early in my career to build my skills and gain a reputation before I ultimately decided to go out on my own. The strategy worked very well for me, in part because it got me thinking in a more entrepreneurial way.
And Christine, I can see where in many cases it's better to stay inside the organizational structure. I'm just an impatient sort. :-)
Posted by: Michele Martin | August 05, 2007 at 08:05 AM
This strikes me as an odd and somewhat angry post. It feels almost like an ancient rite where the head of the old king had to be cut off in order for the new king to assume the throne.
Do you see gray heads as old kings?
Should they be savagely dispatched?
That seems like a very limited view of a world where working lifespans are expanding as people live longer and healthier lives.
My own gray head has seen four careers over a thirty year span. In all of them, I reached leadership positions. In all of them, I then decided to start over with something new and fresh after training a multitude of Gens to establish leadership positions of their own.
I hope to have at least two more careers before placing my own gray head in a grave.
I'm sorry to hear you're an impatient sort. It makes it sound like the you have an affinity for Machiavelli. Should gray heads who dine with you avoid partaking of liquids you offer?
Posted by: Chris | August 06, 2007 at 11:44 AM
Wow! I'm sorry if I came off as angry at the "gray heads." Not where I was coming from at all.
The main points I wanted to make are that 1) we're all in charge of our own professional development and learning and 2)rather than waiting for a baby boomer (or anyone else) to say "hey--let's start preparing you for leadership," we need to start doing that for ourselves. If anything, I'm frustrated by people who feel that leadership should be handed to them.
As for suggesting the disruptive moves--I recognize that sometimes you won't be able to move if you stay in your current role or organization. I see being "disruptive" as making your own opportunities--being entrepreneurial if you will--which is also a part of leadership. This has nothing to do with "savagely dispatching" anyone.
I'm sorry if I gave the impression that I don't respect Boomers--not true. I have great respect for their expertise. I was focusing more on the issue of how the other generations need to take charge of their own learning and development, rather than waiting for it to happen for them.
Posted by: Michele Martin | August 06, 2007 at 12:03 PM
Appreciate your post! Just wanted to mention that we deal with this same issue in the church. Boomers are consistent whether at work or in the volunteer world!
Posted by: Terri | August 06, 2007 at 12:33 PM
I have to say, that thanks to the baby boomers not moving out of the way and the baby boomer management not caring what happens to the companies they are running, that I stopped caring about becoming any sort of business leader.
Think about. You languish in the shadows for a while. You take on the big project no one wants and your reward is, "Thanks here's a coffee mug." You study all the time. You change companies because that is the only way to move up. You climb up the ladder a bit more and then... Wham. You get to see the next couple of levels up and you realize they are filled with more BS than you have been putting up with already.
You start to wonder why you wanted that in the first place. It turns out the pay isn't that much better, the hours suck and you have to put up with more old, stultified baby boomers (who, to tell the truth, think so highly of themselves they think they are the only people in the room).
You can have it. The sad thing is that I am on the leading edge of gen-x and all my friends are starting to feel the same way. Like Lilly Tomlin said, “The problem with the rat race is you’re still a rat.”
Forget it. I'll just keep contracting. The companies can run themselves into the ground for all I care. That seems to be what the boomers want them to do too.
Posted by: x-er | August 06, 2007 at 06:25 PM
X-er, I agree that Gen X and the Millenials are definitely formulating some different ideas about what they want from their lives and for many of them, the "corporate rat race" is out. I myself am a contractor because I decided awhile ago that I did better in settings where I have greater freedom and independence.
But--that said--I don't have the same negative feelings about Boomers that you do. I'm a leading edge X-er, too (by some estimations, a trailing Boomer), so I've been in the Boomer wake my whole life. Yes, there are people who are selfish and corrupt from that generation. But there are plenty who are selfish and corrupt from EVERY generation.
I really didn't intend for this post to be a diatribe against Boomers at all. It was intended to remind Gen X and the Millenials that they can take control of their own lives rather than assuming that the Boomers were going to take care of them--advice I think that everyone should live by, regardless of their generation.
Posted by: Michele Martin | August 07, 2007 at 07:19 AM
Michele - Thanks for your insight as always. I think many times the discussion played out here often becomes one of gen-xers vs. boomers for the same reasons you suggest getting disruptive. There is the issue of two vastly different mindsets of what is possible. Boomers can be unchangeable in their ways of not allowing younger generations to lead, as some of us are the same age as their kids. On the other hand, younger folks can be an
"impatient sort" and want to advance and grow right here, right now - when many baby boomers had to work long and hard for their positions. I think what you are suggesting for me is right on point, that is: rather than trying to fit ourselves in the mindsets of our baby boomer bosses, it may be best to recognize our differences and start to lay out our own new plans for advancing our careers to see what is possible.
X-er's comment above actually makes me expand my thinking about the need to change our language about this issue as well. It's not about getting baby boomers to "move out of the way", but to develop our own personal leadership to the point where we can have the courage to create, push for, and lead new systems that still allow us to work alongside baby boomers in a productive way.
Posted by: Rosetta Thurman | August 08, 2007 at 05:35 PM
Rosetta--as always, a wonderful and thoughtful reply. I'm glad that you saw it as I meant the post to be read.
Obviously there isa lot of tension between the generations and I think the next several years will be very interesting in terms of how that tension plays out. I think that letting it degenerate into a generational war will be a tragic waste of resources and energy, similar to what has happened in this country in how we've dealt with race. We need to get over ourselves, start accepting differences, and be willing to do what it takes to prepare everyone for a future where our competition is not just at home, but everywhere in the world.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful analysis!
Posted by: Michele Martin | August 08, 2007 at 08:13 PM
Great article Michele, and I appreciate Rosetta's thoughts so much. The focus needs to be on creating new systems that compliment whatever exists... isn't this an interesting turn of events? And in the new systems, we get to set the culture, energy, atmosphere, work ethic, goals... everything. Like you said your follow up comment, it changes Gen X/Yers from using energy fighting the system to putting energy completely into creating new systems.
Posted by: John Wasinski | November 19, 2007 at 10:58 PM