Everyone born between the end of World War II and approximately 1959 (some say as late as 1964) are considered to be in the "Baby Boom Generation." This period seems to be the first time a group of people were categorized by the year of birth. Those of us who consider ourselves of the "Baby Boom Generation" always figured there were three categories: ours, those born before, and those born after. Well, that just wasn't good enough for our modern categorized world. We now have a name for what seem somewhat arbitrary categorizations of every human on the planet.
Though I find it mildly amusing, I have no problem with that. However, I've noticed a disturbing trend to use those categories to excuse bad behavior. I have been hearing more and more about how we, as leaders must learn to adapt to the modern traits and conduct of "that generation." Just what does that mean for us as leaders?
At the risk of sounding old and out of step (I'm a late, or young, Baby Boomer) I believe that as leaders, we don't have to accept inappropriate behavior because "it's just the way they are." As leaders, it is our responsibility to set the tone and acceptable standards. It is also our responsibility to help our subordinates develop appropriate relationship skills.
Here's an example. I recently heard an expert say that speakers must get used to people who multi-task. They may be texting while listening to a speech, or checking email during a meeting. He went on to say that we should embrace that tendency and present material in a way that the audience can use such technology. While I have no problem with embracing technology, a little common courtesy is a wonderful thing as well. Unfortunately, it isn't all that common.
In this example, the expert assures us that the newer generations can multi-task and capture the full benefit of each medium. My experience as a leader, trainer, and speaker tells me that's bunk. While there will always be people who have the ability to absorb information simultaneously from more than one source, they are definitely the exception and not the rule. Most instructional specialist will tell you that people retain information best when presented with more than one method of the same information. Anything else is probably a distraction.
So, what do you do as a leader?
First, set the example. I was on a panel discussion once in front of a group of young leaders and was telling them that leadership was not all email and that they needed to get away from the computer and make human contact. After the panel, one of them asked me if I had noticed that my boss, who was at the front of the room though not on the panel, was checking email on his Blackberry while I was making that point. What example did that set?
Next, insist on certain standards. For instance, silence cell phones in meetings (except of course emergency communication). When someone is talking, pay attention to them and not email.
Finally, don't shut off what each generation has to offer. I don't pretend to understand why there are differences in generations. That's the realm of sociologists and well beyond me. As leaders, we will quickly become stagnant if we don't actively seek new concepts and ideas. Your job as a leader is to develop subordinates and bring them to new levels of excellence while embracing their new ideas.
Lest you think this is just the ranting of an aging Baby Boomer (I said I was a young Baby Boomer) consider this. Thirty years ago, the best way available to stay in touch was the pager. Twenty years ago, cell phones were very rare and those that did exist would not exactly clip to your belt. The Blackberry is barely 10 years old this year. All these devices have made it possible to conduct business at light speed, and it is very difficult to live without them in today's business world. Twenty or thirty years from now there will be new devices available with capabilities we can only imagine. But, will they completely replace human interaction? I doubt it, so our leadership responsibility in this age is to incorporate technology as a tool, while still maintaining the basic business etiquette that has served us so well.