This is what millennials and boomers can learn from gen-X managers

Forgotten generation? Forget that. Gen-X leaders have some valuable lessons for their older and younger colleagues.


A few years ago, Pew Research Center called generation X “America’s forgotten middle child.” Sandwiched between the enormous post-war baby boomers and the younger millennials, this smaller generational cohort, born roughly between 1965 and 1981, often doesn’t get as much attention.

But gen-Xers are coming into their own. They’re increasingly powerful, incredibly driven, and assuming leadership roles that boomers are vacating. According to a recent study by Development Directions International’s (DDI’s) Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER), which was previously covered in Fast Company, they have an average of 20 years’ experience and hold 51% of leadership roles worldwide. Here are some lessons other generations can learn from the one that’s mostly ignored.

“Gen-Xers–I have one word that I think about when I define them and that word is ‘efficiency,’ ” says Tammy Hughes, CEO of Claire Raines Associates, LLC, a Wichita Falls, Texas, consultancy that works with companies on generational issues. “They’re looking for ways to get their work done, get out, go home, and spend time doing the things they love to do.”

That means they may be spare with feedback or appear brusque–a trait that can be a turnoff for co-workers and those they supervise, Hughes adds. But, gen-X leaders are about getting results–not hand-holding. Gen-Xers tend to focus more on results than process and are looking for the metrics that show who’s performing well so they can help others improve, too. Adopting this approach can help others lead more balanced or blended lives, where they’re not tied to a desk for eight hours a day, Hughes says.

Gen-Xers came of age “waiting for the next bubble to burst,” says generation expert Amy Lynch, founder of Nashville, Tennessee-based business consultancy Generational Edge. They typically came of age during a recession, entered the workplace around the time of the dotcom bust, and were hit particularly hard by the Great Recession.
“Gen-Xers are the first generation who grew up during a time when they realized, ‘Hey, I’m gonna have to keep running all my life in order to work and so is everybody else,’ ” Lynch says. In fact, a recent Met Life study of gen-Xers found that only about 2 in 5 are working in the same career they intended when they entered the workforce. They built “portable careers,” Lynch says, where they focus on keeping their skills sharp and transferable so they can pivot into new opportunities if they need to do so.

The DDI gen-X study found they are much more likely than other generations to seek mentoring outside their organization. The report found that gen-Xers want more external coaching than more coaching from their managers.

The report also showed that they’re better than other generations at using that outside coaching to solve problems in their own organizations, says DDI research scientist Stephanie Neal. They see that existing leaders may not be up to the task of navigating challenges like digital transformation. So, gen-Xers are seeking answers externally. “I think it may be simply a recognition that, ‘Wow, we need some different ways of tackling these issues,’” Neal says. Those external views may be the key to solutions.

While the “digital native” millennials are often credited with being the most tech-savvy generation in the workplace, gen-Xers are right there with them, the DDI research found. Gen-Xers are roughly as confident in their digital leadership ability as millennials. “This gen-X digital savvy is balanced by strength in more conventional leadership skills such as driving execution and building talent, which are areas in which millennials rated themselves lower than both baby boomer and gen-X leaders,” the report found. Gen-Xers use their traditional leadership skills, combined with digital confidence, to find technology solutions to improve overall efficiency.

Because tough times have hit them hard throughout their careers and they’ve advanced more slowly into leadership positions that boomers lagged in vacating, gen-Xers are resilient, Hughes says. They’ve learned to stick out tough situations and keep going, she adds.

Lynch agrees, adding that their formative years also formed their ability to weather adversity. “They grew up during a time when the economy would bubble and burst and bubble and burst. They grew up during a time when the divorce rate tripled. They grew up during that period of uncertainty and that critical period when authority weakened and the trust in the individual strengthened,” she says. “They’ve seen a lot of change and have ridden the waves of that change pretty successfully. So, there’s a resilience there that I admire.” And that resilience, coupled with their penchant for seeking the best and most efficient solutions, can help them turn around those tough times faster, too, she says.

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