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Birthdates not succession criteria

Don't overlook gen X when it comes to leadership potential

By Todd Humber

As a gen-Xer, it’s hard not to feel discouraged by the buzz surrounding millennials when it comes to leadership. Take this headline, which appeared on the Globe & Mail’s website last month: “Millenials better poised than gen X for leadership roles.”

The argument is that gen-X workers came into the workforce during a recession. As a result, we have been trained to keep our heads down, work hard and be thankful we have a job. We’re great workers but not leadership material — or so the argument goes. 

Millennials, on the other hand, “are more social and interested in what they can get out of a job to meet their future career goals,” the article stated.

Lisa Ritchie, senior director of talent management at Match, put it this way: “Gen X was happy to have a job. Millennials want a future.”  Mary Donohue, of Donohue Mentoring System, was even more blunt: “Millenials are the future, gen-Xers are already the past when it comes to managers of the future.”

To which I say, “Poppycock.”

I don’t buy it, and neither should employers. Gen-X workers are entering their prime working years and many have been tutored and mentored by the best baby boomers in your organization — in some cases for decades. Many gen-X workers haven’t been given the opportunity to take the leadership reins because boomers are staying in the workforce longer, thanks in part to financial concerns and the end of mandatory retirement.

But the boomers can’t stay on the payroll forever, so why would any organization overlook a talent pool that understands the business, has been learning the ropes for the better part of two decades and has the experience to step into the vacuum created when boomers head off into the sunset? 

Let’s break down a few myths.

Myth one: Millenials are more tech-savvy: I don’t see it. Sure, the Atari 2600s and Commodore 64s of our childhood pale in comparison with the iPads and smartphones of today — but gen-Xers have kept pace with technology just fine and in fact have been the driving force behind much of this innovation.

Myth two: Millennials are more social: Sure, Millennials probably have more friends on Facebook. But gen-Xers grew up in a time when relationships weren’t measured by an online friend count but face-to-face interactions on a regular basis. That helps build empathy, which is one of the most important characteristics of a good leader.

Myth three: Millennials want a future, gen-Xers just want a job: I know plenty of millennials struggling to find work in their fields. The unemployment rate for youth is higher today than it was when generation X entered the workforce. The conditions under which millennials are joining the workforce are technically worse than gen-X — so they too will have to keep their heads down and work hard to keep their jobs. (Still not sure how that’s necessarily a bad thing.)

The bottom line is this: It’s impossible to pigeonhole generations into stereotypes, no matter how easy the narrative. 

Are there great millennials in your organization that will make better leaders than gen-X staffers on your payroll? Undoubtedly. But to argue that generation X isn’t the future of leadership or isn’t equipped because it was forced to work hard is nonsense.

Succession planning efforts need to focus on finding the best possible candidates in your organization to rise to the next level when opportunity knocks — the year on the worker’s birth certificate is an irrelevant part of that discussion.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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