Leadership That Transcends Generational Differences: Rick Inatome Offers a Playbook for All Times

In today’s rapid-paced business world, opportunity can be lost in the blink of an eye – making effective communication more important than ever. Rick Inatome describes a case in point.

Envision a Baby Boomer leader who, like others in their generation and in a post-pandemic environment of remote work, relies upon email for business communication. Faced with a time sensitive opportunity that required immediate action, the boss emailed a team composed primarily of millennials and directed them to meet in an hour. At the appointed meeting time, some key team members were no shows. By the time they were tracked down, the opportunity was lost. The boss, the team, and the organization were left with nothing more than a harsh realization of the cost of a generation gap in communication efficacy – and perhaps the tip of an iceberg in generational disharmony and suboptimal productivity.

A defining feature of today’s business workforce is age diversity.

As recently as 2010, according to a Harvard Business Review report, 90% of the world’s top 200 business leaders were Baby Boomers or persons from an older generation. By 2030, it is projected that Millennials and Generation Z will constitute almost 75% of the workforce. Until then, however, Baby Boomers and Generation X will make up more than half of the labor demographic.

Although it can be too easy to generalize, the fact is that individuals are products of the time and environments in which they grew up. The coming-of-age years of many Baby Boomers, for instance, were characterized by inexpensive college tuition, expansive career opportunities, and job security. Generation X, in contrast, entered the workplace during the 1980s and 1990s when corporate restructuring and outsourcing could translate into personal expendability.

Some Key Generational Traits

Much has been written about generational differences and the challenges presented to employers and leaders. A consensus regarding the key characteristics of each group is:

  • Baby Boomers possess a strong work ethic, value stability and job security with their employer, and tend to be hierarchical preferring clear lines of authority and well-defined roles;
  • Generation X – prioritize work-life balance, are entrepreneurial, and are comfortable with change and new ways of working;
  • Generation Y (Millennials) seek integration of work and personal life, value collaboration and feedback, and possess a sense of purpose and desire for positive impact in work;
  • Generation Z – technologically savvy, independent and self-reliant, skilled multitaskers.

The recent pandemic magnified already existing generational differences. With an understanding of these diverse characteristics, it should have been no surprise that back to the office mandates generated massive resistance and push back. Given the dramatic tilt toward Millennials and Generation in the workforce over the next several years, it appears that “temporary” adjustments during the pandemic have become new norms.

Pandemic Driven Change in the Workplace Is Permanent

Even hard-nosed critics of remote work, such as JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon now acknowledge that “(i)t’s clear that working from home will become more permanent in American business.” Holding on to obsolete tenets of command-and-control management risks alienating emerging sources of talent, thereby compromising engagement, productivity, and relevance. Even when full-time office presence makes sense, odds of avoiding cultural damage and lost talent improve by considering the decision-making values of rising generations.

The pandemic simply accelerated a trend that some thought leaders have been popularizing in recent decades. In fact, qualities such as personal vulnerability, transparency, humility, and authenticity are traits that seminal leadership gurus such as Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill touched upon, at least indirectly, nearly a century ago. It thus seems safe to say that there are core leadership qualities that transcend generational differences, so recognizing not just differences but commonality is key to a performance optimizing culture.

Harmonizing and Synergizing the Generations

Enlightened leadership knows that differences can be a source of organizational synergy. By identifying opportunities for unique generational talents to be shared and harnessed toward the common good, it is possible to convert friction into harmony and reap the benefits of unlocked potential. One way of achieving this outcome, Rick Inatome says, could be via a mutual mentoring process.

As with any desired outcome, good process is critical to successful execution. A useful tool for bilateral mentoring is a monthly one-on-one check-in between leaders and their direct reports. Authority figures in this context should be sensitive to power disparities, so it is essential for them to create a safe environment in which they manifest personal vulnerability and receive feedback as a gift.

A Tool for Mutual Mentoring

The check-in would center upon the following three elements:

Establish vulnerability-based trust by identifying successes, challenges, fears, disappointments, and opportunities.

Review performance milestones and offer expertise as needed;

Coach by sharing insights into each other, pointing out blind spots, and identifying opportunities for improvement via direct, honest, and specific feedback.

In this process, a Baby Boomer might share wisdom, knowhow, and networks gained from relevant experience. A Millennial might suggest tools, software, and digital strategies that can increase productivity, improve communication, and heighten engagement of employees and clients.

Certain leadership traits, as noted above, transcend generational differences. Good leaders acknowledge their infallibility, communicate effectively, actively listen, demonstrate empathy, promote collaboration, commit to continuous improvement, are adaptable and open to change -- and thus ensure that all generations feel valued, included, and engaged. By so doing, they decisively shift the cultural narrative from one that risks obsolescence to one for all seasons.

About Rick Inatome

Rick Inatome is a transformative business leader whose legacy includes being an architect of the digital age. Working with other pioneers such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, he established a disruptive technology distribution channel that introduced the personal computer first to the general public and then to corporate America. Rick Inatome is among a select group of tech giants in the Computer Hall of Fame and was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. Magazine. He has founded and managed various private equity funds, served on numerous boards, and is in demand as a consultant, mentor, and public speaker.