Hbr leaders need now

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S POTLIGHT O N L EADERSHIP : T HE N EXT G ENERATION Generation X will produce executives who bring a distinctive sense of realism to the modern corporation.

The Leaders We Need Now
by Tamara J. Erickson


Reprint R1005C

Generation X will produce executives who bring a distinctive sense of realism to the modern corporation.

S POTLIGHT O N L EADERSHIP : T HE N EXT GENERATION

The Leaders We Need Now
by Tamara J. Erickson

COPYRIGHT © 2010 HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL PUBLISHING CORPORATION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

A new cohort of leaders is poised to take senior executive roles and is bringing with it a whole new mind-set. Baby Boomers have been firmly in charge for the past few decades, and as a rule they have been willing to operate by a well-understood setof corporate practices and policies related to compensation, hierarchy, and expectations for the way work “works.” Generation Xers, born from 1961 through 1981, have different ideas. They’re more apt to reject status-quo definitions of success and seek their own paths. The differences can be traced to the times during which each group came of age and formed its attitudes toward work and society.Although it’s impossible to draw neat boundaries along generational lines and unproductive to overgeneralize, we are each, in part, a product of our time. The formative years of Xers looked very different from those of Boomers. For one thing, Baby Boomers grew up in a world that was fundamentally too small for them. The infrastructure couldn’t expand fast

enough to accommodate the sudden growth ofthis cohort. Boomers went to high school in Quonset huts behind the actual schools because there weren’t enough rooms to hold them all. They’ve competed for everything throughout their lives—from spots on high school sports teams to college admissions, jobs, and promotions. Winning, for Boomers, is a very big deal. The Xers’ formative years—the 1980s and early 1990s—were broadly shaped byeconomic uncertainty and domestic social change. Their teens were a time of major corporate restructuring, as the psychological contracts between employers and employees were ripped apart in then-unprecedented ways. Before 1981, the word “layoff,” in the sense of permanent separation from a job with no prospects for recall, was so uncommon that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics didn’t even keep trackof such cuts. It’s not surprising that younger managers are warier of corporate commitments. Consider the following exchange, shared

harvard business review • may 2010

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The Leaders We Need Now •• •S POTLIGHT O N L EADERSHIP : T HE N EXT G ENERATION

with me by a manager in an executive education class: A Boomer approaches a Gen X manager. “Great news! You’ve won the promotion!”The Boomer waits for obvious signs of delight, then adds, “Of course, you’ll have to relocate to Topeka.” Dead silence. “No thanks,” the Xer flatly replies. Even worse, after considering her options, the young manager quit. A talented, promising Gen Xer simply opted out of the hierarchy. Herein lie the roots of the slacker myth. Almost any Boomer would be perplexed by this response and might leaprapidly to a value judgment about the Xer’s commitment to the company or her career. It would be a short step to assume that the Xer lacked ambition, confidence, or perhaps even raw intelligence—after all, how could she not recognize what a big deal this is? Though misguided, these are the instinctive reactions from a generation that has been conditioned to see the business world as an ongoing gameof musical chairs. The Gen X manager, by contrast, grew up knowing that her company would ultimately view her as expendable. She didn’t want to put all her eggs into one corporate basket and potentially be abandoned in a new city or pushed too deeply into one area of specialization. She is part of a generation that particularly prizes options—one with many members who are profoundly dissatisfied...
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