Leading Effectively Across Generations

Leading across generations - Martin Roll

Great leaders are defined by their ability to unite groups of unique individuals around a common vision. The only universally effective leadership strategy in modern organizations filled with employees with varying motivations is empathy, understanding and versatility. Leadership in the twenty first century requires a high degree of emotional intelligence.

As human beings, most of us tend to project our own worldview onto other people, believing that others should behave as we should when faced with the same circumstances. As a result, unfair expectations often lead to miscommunication and disappointment. To lead others, we have to understand each person’s unique experiences that have shaped their perspective on the world around them.

The demographics of today’s labour force are changing, providing greater challenges for today and tomorrow’s leaders. We hear much about how millennial consumers (Generation Y) are changing the way brands approach marketing, with content creation replacing traditional advertising and corporate social responsibility becoming a greater priority. Millennials are having a similar impact on the internal function of organisations as well.

Millennials, who now make up the largest portion of active workers, will account for 75% of the global workforce by 2025 despite older workers remaining in the workforce longer and feeling younger. Leadership within this context must begin with understanding.

Understanding millennials before leading them

One reason many millennials have quickly climbed the organisational ladder to positions of leadership at such a young age is due to their proficiency with new technology, data, analytics and organisational decision sciences. To HR professionals, young employees often come off as arrogant, entitled or lacking in professionalism when entering new roles. But while they do enter the workforce with a different set of expectations, these are often incorrectly perceived as a lack or work ethic or disrespect. Instead, managers should be striving to understand this group in more detail.  Being able to lead others begins with empathy – the capacity to share or recognize the emotions experienced by others.

Usually described as those below the age of 35, millennials have either studied or began their professional work experience during a time of unprecedented disruption worldwide in terms of politics, economics, technology, social interconnectedness and competitive innovation. This global environment dictates that they be adaptable, valuing less of what has existed previously in favour of what comes next or what can be improved. Educational institutions are not preparing them adequately for what comes next, while governments are constantly seeking ways to provide fewer financial safety nets for citizens. As a result, young people are increasingly led to believe their destiny is in their own hands. Young people today also feel older than they really are, with those aged 24, for example, feeling 5 years older than their true age. These factors explain much about millennials perceived lack of respect for existing processes and their willingness to challenge them. What is too often dismissed as narcissism is simply a reaction to the world around young people as they enter the workforce.

Millennials often also bear the brunt of criticism that should fall upon the age cohort above them as well: The Generation X generation. Like Millennials, Gen-X workers grew up in a time of upheaval where the first companies were reneging on their pension commitments and laying off mature workers en-masse without reasonable prospects for future employment as the world underwent another industrial revolution. In fact, it is this generation that can be said to be responsible for so much of the “follow-your-passion” career advice given to millennials today.

The Generation X generation are almost as likely as millennials to job-hop – an often-cited negative criticism of millennials. One reason is that the Generation X generation is more appealing to headhunters given the greater skills and experience they have acquired. They are also increasingly likely to leave the corporate world altogether and become entrepreneurs. The modern workplace is becoming more dynamic as both Generation X and Millennials are not attracted by lifelong employment.

The bottom line is that all of the characteristics described in this article should not be pegged exclusively to millennials. One general rule should be kept in mind – the younger the generation, the stronger the following characteristics hold true when it comes to the priorities of employees, their preference for hierarchy and frequency of feedback.

Meaningful priorities: Company cultures built around financial motivation have becomes less meaningful to each successive generation of younger workers. Today, freedom, flexibility, development opportunity and learning are becoming more important characteristics of the ideal workplace. To illustrate the age difference, 50% of older managers feel that high pay is important compared to only 28% of millennials. Within this context, meaningful work has never been more important to employees. A staggering majority of millennials, when surveyed, believe that business should be measured by more than just profit and should focus more on a societal purpose. As a result, 30% of millennials say a strong purpose in their daily work is important compared to 12% of older managers.

Hierarchy & organisation: Millennials often have little problems circumventing bureaucracy and excessive levels of reporting in order to create for themselves what they feel they deserve. Rather than hierarchy, a “wirearchy” is becoming more desirable for younger workers. Each successive generation has grown up with more means of social networking, they are more connected and wired together with the world around them. As a direct result, the desire for collaboration without physical presence is increasing. While older managers prefer face-to-face communication, younger workers want to work from home or other locations than the office, enabled by video conferencing and file-sharing services, despite the consequence that their remuneration may be lower. Some surveys conclude that more than 85% of millennials want to work remotely and outside of normal working hours. Although corporate resistance is understandable, statistics show that remote workers can actually be more engaged and work more hours overall.

Frequency of feedback: In the age of the Internet of Things, each successive generation has become accustomed to nearly every facet of their daily lives responding faster to their needs and offering instant gratification. Why should their workplace be any different? As younger workers desire for growth and development increases, so must the frequency of feedback. Millennials seek instant feedback on their performance, on tasks they have completed and their work in progress. They expect leaders to be present and provide on-going guidance and criticism – at a much more extensive level than past generations.

Annual performance reviews are in decline and for most millennials viewed as old-fashioned. If they haven’t already, organisational appraisal systems should respond by offering frequent feedback programs, including online tools where available, to those who would benefit most from them. Matching the right mentor and with the right subordinates based on their communication preference is also critical. One-size does not fit all.

Challenges for younger leaders

Millennials are no longer just followers but are increasingly becoming leaders themselves. Almost one third of all employees currently work for a younger boss. Just as older managers need to take time to understand generational differences, younger leaders must learn to lead their seniors in a way that will minimize tension and maximise productivity.

Firstly, the differences described above must be acknowledged by young leaders. After all, they would expect this of their leader if roles were reversed. Secondly, they should be actively seeking opportunities for complementary synergies wherever these differences exist.

One of the most obvious areas millennial leaders have found early success is with new approaches to technology, data, analytics and organisational decision sciences. But while younger generations are typically strongest at gathering information, understanding and embracing technology, over reliance on data may also be holding companies back, causing them to be overly conservative and minimalist in their focus. Experience and intuition are desperately needed to balance analytical rigor in a world increasingly fascinated and driven by Big Data. Older employees can also help younger leaders avoid pitfalls and traps they may have already experienced. These are irreplaceable and intuitive skills many older workers have which cannot be replaced by ones and zeroes.

Lastly, with differences aside, younger leaders must also strive to find similarities, shared interests and experiences where common ground can be found. In some surveys, workers aged 50 and older said the most important elements for their job quality were constructive relationships rather than pay and benefits. Another misconception had to do with training. Because most on-the-job training occurs early in careers, many make the assumption that older workers are less interested in improvement. However, research has shown that most adults over 40 think of themselves as up to 20% younger than their actual chronological age. Many older workers do want development, learning and advancement just as much as their younger colleagues but they are simply not offered the opportunities. These are areas millennials can surely sympathise with and advance further for the benefit of the organizations and individuals.

Age is only one element of behaviour

Making broad generalisations within groups of people -even those described in this article which are based upon empirical research – should always come with a caveat. Just because most people in a particular group behave a certain way, does not mean all in that group do. It must never be forgotten, that while these theories provide strong guidelines, each person’s life experiences are fundamentally different. A superficial effort to understand employees results in assumptions that, in many respects, lead toward false conclusions. Beyond age, understanding how other elements such as culture, skill and personal psychology contribute to a colleague’s world views will provide a stronger platform from which to exercise effective and versatile leadership.

Globalisation has meant that multi-ethnic and multi-geographical teams are now the norm. More than 60% of managers have said that their companies’ teams have become more diverse in the past three years and 55% say that their teams are more geographically distributed. Leaders must, therefore, understand widely different cultural perspectives and how they influence the behaviours of different age groups.

Generally, the characteristics described throughout this article exist to a greater extent among individuals in Western countries and are less present in more collectivist nations such as in Asia where Confucian value systems are still relatively strong. Although these changes may be very subtle today, they are indeed becoming more amplified as nations grow and become more interconnected. Leaders in all countries should understand how the broad age-related behaviours described in this article are becoming more common. Generalizations across culture, however, should come with an even more cautious approach. Understanding cultural difference is a separate field of demographic research altogether. Few cultures are as homogenous as once believed and each country is a mosaic of religion and tradition that requires great care to understand completely.

In addition to age and culture, a leader’s approach must also depend on the combination of skill and motivation of each person they influence. To create synergies that achieve the broader objectives, managers must understand how these elements determine whether managers can afford a hands-off approach, empowering employees with clear objectives, or whether they must become part-time psychologists. Truly transcendent leadership is deeply personal and takes great efforts to exercise well.


Great leaders must use a style of leadership that is not just appropriate for their company as a whole, but an adapted style that is unique to each individual. Human capital is the engine that drives growth and performance and age differences are a vitally important element of behaviour and interaction. For organizations to produce more than just the sum of their parts, the core of their leadership strategy must be empathy – understanding others more deeply in order to better lead them. Unfortunately, more people today view their managers as an obstacle to effectiveness than as an enabler of it. Much of this is due to ignorance.

As the demographics of today’s labour force evolve, great leaders must be comfortable using several styles of leadership, flowing seamlessly between interactions with different audiences, uniting groups of individuals around a common vision.

The younger the generation, the greater the desire for meaningful priorities, a wired hierarchy and frequency of feedback managers must provide. As millennials embrace the shift of power from older generations to themselves, they must actively seek opportunities for complementary synergies where differences exist but also strive to find similarities, shared interests, experiences and common ground that can move each individual and the organisation forward. Great leaders of today and the future will be the ones who successfully navigate these generational gaps.


This article is part of the Leadership Series. Read the other related articles:

Part 1: Are You A Leader? 10 Questions To Understand The Essence Of Leadership

Part 2: Versatility Is The Key To Effective Leadership

Part 4: Ten Ways to Become A Great Mentor

Part 5: Next Generation Leadership: How To Enhance Performance