Much of the literature published today focuses on how to help young aspirants to climb the business ladder and become those future titans of industry we always praise and admire. This is not a criticism of these pieces more so a necessary addendum that tends to get ignored once that climb is complete and you are safely secure in the beloved and coveted “C”-suite. Namely, how do you lead once you become a C Suite Executive, whether it is operational, sales, marketing, product, administration, information technology, or any of the other diverse titles now adorned with the high “C?” Surprisingly, many seem to think that the leadership of your parents and grandparents is as valid today as it was 15 and 20 years ago. Unfortunately, such thinking is not only wrong-headed, it could very well be undermining for future executives striving to prosper once they have climbed that ladder of success. Indeed, one of the biggest problems for executive leaders today seems to be learning to embrace the new reality that the best executive leadership is far more about massaging scalps and not about taking them Wild Wild West-style.
There can be no doubt that the preferred leadership style has dramatically evolved when going from what Americans call the Baby Boomer Generation to Generation X to the now somewhat infamous Millennial Generation. There have been many complaints about how young adults today entering the corporate world not only have an inflated sense of self not backed by actual achievement but embed their early careers with a sense of business self-entitlement and demands for empathetic fairness that few ‘old-school’ leaders would recognize. Today, there are far more conversations about work-life balance, schedule flexibility, and equity success, whereas the so-called glory days of old are solely concerned with the bottom line, year-end earnings, and future projections, still of course a priority but today you need to embrace the employee and develop a culture to get there and sustain success. The approach today is more of an inside out approach to reach sustainable success, to attract and retain business, it is important to build a solid EX (Employee Experience) platform, that also attracts and retains talent. Rather than complaining about how ‘soft’ the work force has become, new executives need to recognize how the world has changed and produced a new workforce that will only perform at the highest levels with proper measurement, recognition of their work, encouragement and latitude rather than fear. Failure to acknowledge this evolution most likely signals deficiency and changes in your own leadership, not the need to change the workforce.
To be sure, this transition is not entirely complete or concretized. After all, there are still plenty of Baby Boomers occupying many of the most powerful positions in the world’s biggest multinational corporations and they were mostly the mentors and advisors to Generation X business school graduates who emerged in the early and mid-1990s. But these two generations are now standing face-to-face with a huge workforce with Millennial inclinations and as time progresses those inclinations not only grow stronger, but they start to become the de facto societal baseline for doing business. Indeed, this is no longer our grandfather’s business world. Some might think the fact that the United States currently has a President whose famous book, The Art of the Deal, was a testimony to the cutthroat, merciless 1980s-style of leadership is a refutation of this brave new soft world of business. But his overall decline in popularity in the polls and oftentimes the medias outright dismissal of his ideas on leadership, where ‘success’ is defined more by how well you manipulate people to do your bidding rather than learning how to maximize the individual talents of your workforce, shows how this kind of leadership that was considered the driving force in its day can no longer carry the day in 2019 and beyond.
This new 21st century leadership style should be seen as the positive force for change that it is, rather than a testament to how people aren’t tough enough anymore. More than anything, it is a recognition that leadership works best when it can be subtle, nuanced, and strategic when dealing with a truly diverse and individualized workforce. It is not about coddling new employees as much as it is about rejecting the old demand that everyone fit into the same cookie cutter approach to a position. In the old days, stubbornness, being overly demanding, lacking understanding, and in general just acting as a basic tyrant was seen as something of the just reward for all of the hard work you endured to get to the top. Today, it would be symbolic of how out of touch you are as a modern leader. It is no longer about getting results by any means necessary. It is about achieving in a manner that builds people’s allegiance, trust, satisfaction, and overall commitment to the company. Not in spite of your leadership but because of it – viewing the company as inside out. That is to say get the culture and strategy right inside the company first by developing the employee experience (EX) – that will translate to the customer as the company with people who care about the business and subsequently cares about their business giving a better customer experience (CX) as a result.
Becoming fluent in this new leadership style is what is going to mark the most successful leaders moving forward in the 21st century. Will there still be examples of the old leadership? Will there still be examples of such leaders running powerful companies? Without doubt, the answer is yes to both questions. But those aspiring leaders who will pin their hopes on that so as to not embrace change and not force themselves to become evolved leaders will be exemplars of a dying style and heads of demotivated companies. Those who do embrace the opportunity, who see empathy and empowerment not as necessary evils but as building blocks to high-level success and achievement, will find themselves creating the ideal triple-success: profitable results, satisfied employees, and personal advancement.
As one generation ends its executive career, a new one takes its place. Very little changed in terms of defining leadership and setting the “C-suite” atmosphere when moving from the Baby Boomer generation to Generation X. That very well might be because Generation X did not challenge or question the business world it was trained and educated in. A world, not coincidentally, overseen by the Baby Boomers. The same cannot be said, however, when we look at how the landscape has already changed as we get into the heart of the Generation X – Millennial Generation interaction. Millennials, rightly or wrongly, properly or inappropriately, have engaged the global economy not just as automatons mindlessly following the rules, but as creative beings asking questions. Inevitably, this means as Generation X heads into the final third of its executive career, the time which should be its own “C-suite” peak, it needs to ask itself what it plans to do with this new type of workforce? Will it quixotically charge the windmill in an effort to keep the playing field as it has been for the last half-century? Or will it embrace change as a welcome opportunity to prove its own uniqueness? Only time will tell but, hopefully, it will recognize the latter as a much more profitable and productive choice than the futility of the former.