How Emerging Managers Will Alter Gases & Welding’s Leadership Paradigm

emergingJosh has been with ABC Gases Inc. for the past eight years. A management graduate of the local university, he enjoys his work with the company and is forever taking new classes to enhance his skills and overall knowledge of the industry. At the same time, he’ll be the first to tell you that, while he still finds the job somewhat challenging, it has become repetitive. “Besides,” he adds, “the leadership here is kind of stuck in the ’70s.”

Josh’s colleague, Todd, shares some of the same concerns. Since completing his MBA last year, Todd has been networking with every senior manager to whom he can gain access. Recognizing that close to 50 percent of the organization’s leadership will be eligible for retirement in five years, he has planned an all-out campaign to position himself for future opportunities. While some have found his tactics inappropriate, he is unapologetic. “After all, I’m 31, and time’s a-wasting,” he says.

The Coming Transition
As firms within the industry begin their slow but steady transition from a Baby Boomer workforce to one dominated by the so-called Generation X, the style of leadership will change dramatically. Boomers grew up in a world of expanding possibilities, tremendous economic growth and the Camelot of John F. Kennedy. Xers, on the other hand, were born into layoffs, inflation, recession, Watergate and the societal chaos of the 1970s. Boomers are optimistic; Xers are skeptical. Boomers embrace the egalitarianism of teams; Xers focus on personal branding and individual contribution. Is it any wonder, then, that present-day leadership practices will change with the emergence of these new professionals?

While some managers have dismissed the impact of this revolution, it has become increasingly clear that the leadership styles of this new generation will forever alter the management landscape within the industry. The question is: How prepared are you and your colleagues?

While this transition will be gradual, one can see some of the characteristics emerging even now. After all, the leading edge of Generation X has just reached the age of 40. So how can you anticipate and embrace these shifts in philosophy? First, identify the trends that will impact your organization. The following is some of what to expect.

Shorter Tenure to Develop Leaders
A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 83 percent of current graduates say they expect to be in their first job for less than three years. So much for the average tenure that exists in many industries today. While present-day managers and leaders were nurtured over a decade or more, this luxury will be lost due to worker impatience, a shortage of skilled professionals, and the fluidity of organizational change. Many of today’s current leaders spent the first decade of their career building skills and experience, but it is reasonable to assume that many new leaders will not remain in the organization for a decade. According to one survey, Xers are the least likely of the four generations to identify what they do for a living as a part of a career. Consequently, ties to a particular industry will not be as strong in coming years, opening new avenues for the emerging leaders who find themselves less than stimulated by gases and welding over time.

Technology’s Influence on Management
Generation X has grown up with keyboards attached to their fingers. When searching for solutions, they are just as likely to hop on the Web for answers as they are to ask a colleague. Is it safe to assume, therefore, that they will apply this strategy to leadership as well as to technical challenges? Perhaps. Why hold an all-hands meeting when you can send an e-mail? Why communicate the organizational vision at a resort when you can video-conference? Why send out glossy annual reports when you can post financial results on the Web?

Contract vs. Calling Mentality
Members of Generation X tend to view their jobs as contractual relationships. Boomers, on the other hand, tend to view their jobs as callings. Ask a Boomer, “What do you do?” in cocktail conversation and he or she will most likely respond with a job title or an occupation. Ask an Xer the same question and he or she will ask for clarification. “What do you do” might mean family, hobbies, charity work and, oh yes, the job. One of the reasons why layoffs have been so devastating to some Boomers is that they not only have lost their livelihood, but also their sense of identity. Xers have learned from this phenomenon and are careful about investing too much of their emotions into one job. This detachment has served them well in the current spate of organizational restructuring.

Day-to-Day Work
On the job, Xers look for ways to position themselves for better opportunities. They seek out training, education, certifications, experiences, mentoring and anything that will build their rÇsumÇs. They feel this provides versatility for the future. As mentioned above, they also view jobs as contractual relationships. More than one manager has been burned by exaggerating various aspects of a position in order to attract top candidates, only to find that they pull up stakes when it is discovered that the job is not as advertised. Xers feel comfortable confronting managers on commitments not kept.

But this contract is not limited to promises made during the recruiting process. Break a promise with regard to opportunity and you may have breached the contract. Fail to provide promised training and you may have breached the contract. Delay a promotion and you may have breached the contract. When promises made to Boomers have been broken, most have sucked it up and waited patiently. Xers, being of a different philosophy, have not been so forgiving. They may not leave the organization immediately, but the temptation to look around certainly is there. This attitude, coupled with a predicted shortage of trained professionals over time, places them in an advantageous position.

Approach toward Organizations
Being naturally wary of organizational politics and bureaucracy, Xers also tend to be more aware of the undercurrents of change that can affect any organization. They communicate avidly with peers. The power of e-mail allows them to silently network with others on job-related issues. While some veteran managers might view this as sinister, it is simply one more illustration of how this group of emerging professionals will hold organizations more accountable for their actions over time.

Emphasis on Life Balance
Xers are hard workers, but they tend not to bring the job home. Home is home and work is work. Ask them to work overtime, and you may find that you are competing with other scheduled family activities they’ve already arranged. Ask them to come in for a special weekend meeting and they will do it reluctantly. Organizational gatherings, such as holiday parties and picnics, are viewed many times as a Boomer-initiated distraction from the business at hand. They will attend if they think that their presence will be missed, but they’d rather be rollerblading with their kids.

Some veteran leaders have concluded that this detachment is misguided and there is clear evidence that those who want to reach the upper echelons within any organization will still have to make many of the sacrifices of those before them. The difference is in philosophy. While Baby Boomers worked long hours in hopes that their sacrifices would be noticed over time, Xers expect their sacrifices to be noticed and expect clear guidance as to what those sacrifices should be. Address impatience with a phrase like “these things take time,” and it will fall on deaf ears. Xers expect a schedule. Only time will reveal the effectiveness of this new approach.

The Boomer Retirement Conundrum
The wild card in this whole equation is whether the Boomers will retire on schedule. There is increasing evidence that many who planned to retire in their late 50s or early 60s may not be able to do so because they lack sufficient assets. According to some researchers, as much as one-third of the Baby Boomer generation (approximately 25 million people) will have to make significant sacrifices to their standard of living upon retirement, resulting from poor savings habits, loss of higher paying jobs, layoffs and the liquidation of home equity to pay off consumer debt. While this may be mitigated for those holding generous pensions, the assumption that everyone will retire “on time” probably is flawed. This means that some veteran workers will remain on the job longer than expected, which will be a mixed blessing. On one hand, this delay will provide more opportunity for knowledge transfer, mentoring and leadership development. On the other, it will impact budgets by forcing firms to continue paying the high salaries these veterans are earning.

Leaders should not, however, rest on their laurels and hope this enormous transition has been delayed. There is no clear formula for addressing this tectonic transition, though a thorough analysis of your organization’s leadership and overall workforce should begin immediately. As this new generation of emerging leaders washes over the industry, it will present exciting new opportunities and significant philosophical changes.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association

Bob Wendover Meet the Author
Robert W. Wendover is director of the Center for Generational Studies, based in Aurora, Colorado, and on the Web at