Tania Lennon of the Hay Group, an international corporate leadership development consulting company, published an excellent study on the multigenerational workforce. Her team studied over 2,500 executives around the world spanning five generations: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, Generation Y, and Generation Z. Members from each group were asked about what they valued in the workplace. As it turns out, there were quite a few differences in answers between the generations:
- Traditionalists (born between 1928-1944): “Value authority and a top-down management approach; hard working; ‘be heroic.'”
- Baby Boomers (born between 1945-1964): “Expect some degree of deference to their opinions; workaholics; ‘be anything you want to be’; ‘eternal youth—retirement as freedom.’”
- Generation X (born between 1965-1979): “Comfortable with authority; want to be listened to; will work as hard as needed; ‘don’t count on it’; ‘take care of yourself’; importance of work life balance.”
- Generation Y (born between 1980-1994): “Respect must be earned. ‘You are special’; ‘achieve now’; technologically savvy; goal and achievement oriented.”
- Generation Z (born from 1995 and on): “Many traits still to emerge. Digital natives, fast decision makers, highly connected.”
So what does this corporate study have to do with educational institutions? A lot. In John Ortberg’s 2009 Christianity Today article, he retells the 2 Chronicles 10 story of Rehoboam taking over his father’s flock and says, “…it is striking that even in the Bible, one of the ways that human community becomes disrupted is the generational divide. If the generational divide was a gap then, it is a canyon now.”
The generational canyon Ortberg refers to in 2009 is now the Grand Canyon of staffing issues in 2020. Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest generation, leaving Generation X in the valley of the canyon as the smallest generation in the workforce, according to Pew Research.
In a Vanderbloemen Academy lesson on this subject, William Vanderbloemen discusses what he calls the “double-humped camel” problem in our current workforce, often causing friction on leadership teams. He describes this reality: there are more Baby Boomers and Millennials in the workforce than Gen X, which is why developing multigenerational leadership skills is becoming increasingly vital to leaders. Those who can hone their multigenerational leadership skills will be best equipped to serve their teams by fostering personal leadership growth, clearly identifying a vision that everyone can follow, and executing a mission in a way that has everyone on board.
In our work with Christian organizations around the world, we continually hear two primary challenges that leaders face when it comes to staffing: one, help us find high-capacity staff members from the different generations we need represented in our organization; and two, help us foster unity on our team across generations and develop them as leaders who can serve together.
The familiar tone we hear from Baby Boomer leaders sounds like this, “I’m so frustrated with the Millennials on our team. They’re lazy and unmotivated.” And what do we typically hear from Millennial leaders? “I’m so frustrated with the Baby Boomers on our team. They’re resistant to change and out of touch with how the world is changing.”
Reviewing the aforementioned Hay Group report, however, we see that our different generations might be more similar than we realize, particularly when it comes to expectations in the workplace. The report found that five themes emerge as being most important to people on staff in an organization, regardless of their age:
- Focus on customers and external stakeholders
- Focus on execution
- Planning and organizing
Lennon writes, “These priorities reflect the challenges of managing in today’s matrixed and network organizations. A deft blend of drive, working with others, and external focus is seen to be key to leadership success.” So the challenge for us as Christian leaders is this: let’s reflect on our own adaptability and on ourselves as leaders before we blame one generation or another for the silos we see in our organizations and on our teams.
Looking for a starting point? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I lead my individual team members with a one-size-fits-all mentality, or do I differentiate based on the individual?
Lennon says, “Leaders don’t need to develop generation-specific skills. They should be able to adapt leadership styles to suit the individual.” We love this point because it invites the leader into self-reflection and the consideration of their own responsibility in developing their team members, regardless of the team member’s age. This question applies to both leaders who are leading people older than themselves, as well as younger than themselves. Both pose unique challenges. The reality is that leadership development is not formulaic. Dynamic leadership development should be customized to the individual team member you are leading in each moment.
2. Do I foster opportunities for cross-team and intergenerational collaboration?
Collaboration is key to creating a contagious staff culture. Silos and cliques cause distrust and tension among teams. Be intentional about creating opportunities for your team to work together, especially if you have teams that have more of one generation represented than another.
Compared to many other types of organizations, your school is uniquely primed for this type of environment. Multiple generations interacting is woven into your very fabric. Do not take this for granted though. Be intentional with how you design interactions. It is one thing to have a multigenerational school—but being deliberate with an inter-generational school will create opportunities for everyone to learn and flourish together. Psalm 71:18 speaks of “declaring God’s power to the next generation, God’s mighty acts to all who are to come.” As you consider the development of leaders in your school, there is a responsibility for experienced leaders to invest in your newer leaders—and a richness of rewards when the wisdom of elders is headed.
We also recommend planning multigenerational events outside of work. Plan a staff dinner or game night where your team can get to know each other. You’ll see the productivity on your team skyrocket when they genuinely like each other.
3. Do I have a plan for the future?
Workforce demographics are changing. The number of full-time working Baby Boomers is decreasing, and will sharply decline over the course of the next decade. Your school probably has a significant population of faculty and staff who are beginning to consider retirement. Are you prepared for this?
We recently worked with an institution in this very situation. Writing a new strategic plan coincided with the institution’s accreditation renewal process. They decided to use these two processes to have very deliberate conversations about what tenured faculty might look like in 10 years. They asked questions like: “What is our plan for replacing high-capacity, qualified faculty members in key roles?” “How do we ensure that we will not lose critical institutional memory when certain key figures retire?” and “What will the benefits and drawbacks be if we lean more toward adjunct faculty rather than full-time replacements?” Not all of these questions had immediate answers, but there is great wisdom in performing this exercise.
You may be able to use a similar approach if you are in the midst of strategic planning or in a cycle of institutional review. Or just set aside agenda time to start asking some key questions. Either way, you need to start the conversation.
These are just three questions to get you started in reflecting on your self-awareness as a multigenerational leader. Your school likely has a healthy representation across three different generations—it is one of the things that makes academic institutions unique and dynamic. Your intentionality as a multigenerational leader will only continue to increase in importance as you develop your teams.
NOTE: This article was originally posted in February 2020 and republished in June 2021 to keep this important topic top of mind.
About the Authors
Brian Jensen is an executive search consultant at Vanderbloemen where he helps Christian schools, churches, and nonprofits build their best teams by finding their key staff. He brings 15 years of Christian education experience to Vanderbloemen, most recently serving as the vice president of Student Development at Geneva College. Brian co-authored Storied Leadership: Living and Leading from the Christian Narrative, a book that offers a perspective on leadership that is developed from the rich story of the scriptures, and co-edited Reimagining the Student Experience: Formative Practices for Changing Times, a book designed to help professionals doing the good work of student affairs on Christian college campuses. Brian holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master’s degree in higher education with an emphasis in educational leadership. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Holly Tate is the founder of The Ready Network, an entrepreneur, speaker, growth strategist, and member of the Forbes Communications Council. With a decade of marketing and sales experience, Holly empowers people and organizations by connecting them to the tools and resources they need to grow. She can be reached at email@example.com.