Over the span of my life as a baby boomer, I’ve become increasingly aware, and appreciative of, my gut instincts. Some of these involuntary reactions exist independent of experience to protect our well-being. There are also gut reactions that are born out of experience. Our neural networks and cognitive abilities are literally shaped by our experiences.
In today’s talent market, the baby boomer generation can be a great source of insight and wisdom based on decades of business experience. Part of the art of survival is pattern recognition, as it becomes predictive in nature. If used wisely, it allows us to shorten learning curves as well as reduce the associated risk with some types of decision-making. We’ve seen it before, we know how the story might unfold and we can predict with some level of certainty the pitfalls to avoid. Experience is a great teacher, as it imprints on the brain not only the literal experience, but also the associated emotion. The combination is very powerful; it enables both the recall of the events as well as application of the lessons learned.
Neuroscience has taught us many things, but there are two aspects that directly influence my thinking about my colleagues and my role as a leader. First, we’re all wired to connect with one another. Our brains are social in nature; we are predisposed to network with others. Second, our brains prefer similarity to difference — we feel a greater sense of pleasure from things that are similar than not. Our natural bias is to protect ourselves by avoiding differences, so focusing on differences without a plan to close the gap doesn’t make life easier — quite the opposite. We are wired to connect with and relate to others.
Teaching is one of the greatest ways to enhance connectedness as well as relatedness. I would submit that if you’re part of the baby boomer generation, you have the unique opportunity to grow and enable successors. For example, consider diversity programs. I would argue the No. 1 failure of most diversity initiatives is the lack of purposeful development of the individuals who are outside the “power” structure, whatever that may be. In the case of baby boomers, we often find ourselves in positions of organizational power and personal influence. With that comes the responsibility to create more seats at the table, expand the pie — whatever metaphor works for you.
Here’s one more concept to consider before I offer some recommendations. Design Thinking has taught us that creating a high-fidelity experience begins with empathy for the person on the receiving end of the experience. To this day, I still remember one of my graduate school professors saying, “The burden of a clear message resides with the sender, not the receiver.” Today, we’re taking customer experience lessons learned from marketing and transposing them to the employee experience, driven in part by human resources.
How can these ideas of connecting, relating and creating empathy all come together to help us grow a pipeline of leaders, quicker and with greater success?
Here are a few suggestions:
- If you do nothing else, take others with you into moments where they can learn by watching you in action.
There’s no substitute for being part of the action, particularly at levels in the organization where access is more restricted. Developing leaders learn from the exposure you provide, particularly if you make the time to debrief and coach. Even in the worst possible moments, leaders with less experience learn by watching you handle adversity. I am reminded of the value to a new direct report as we debriefed a CEO meeting that took a bad turn. That moment created an amazing coaching opportunity. The dialogue was less about me being verbally decapitated than the skills involved to navigate the C-suite. It allowed this young leader to experience the intensity of the exchange without being directly accountable.
One important nuance, you will likely need to explain why a “non-essential” colleague is part of a meeting. It’s best to set the context of leadership development with your key stakeholders before you arrive with an unexpected guest.
- Foster external perspectives.
Never allow your emerging leaders to develop an insular point of view. I made this mistake early in my career, limiting my thinking to one organization. Introduce your rising stars to your networks. Take them to industry and association meetings with you. Co-present with them at conferences to help build their brand. If your brand has real meaning, then being associated with your expertise will enhance theirs. Help them build connections and relationships.
- Mitigate risk while expanding their reach.
Part of developing new skills is making room for failure, and you should have the discussion with your growing leaders about your philosophy. Talking about failure in advance is a tremendous form of empathy, as it acknowledges what they might fear. My message sounds something like this:
- Stretch yourself and me. New ideas emerge from pushing boundaries.
- Cognitive dissonance is good. I may have strong opinions, but that does not mean I’m right.
- Don’t surprise me. I can’t protect you if I don’t know the timely truth.
- When you fail, make sure you can articulate what you learned.
- Share your failures along with your successes.
In leadership development, the ultimate gift is helping others avoid the mistakes you’ve made yourself. Being transparent builds connections, helps others relate to you and demonstrates the empathy you feel for those around you.
- Project their future success.
It’s amazing how uplifting it can be to refer to a developing leader in terms of their future potential. Phrases like “Once you become …” or “When you are the leader of …” have profound impact. It’s a vote of confidence unlike any other and only requires time and sincerity.
Fellow baby boomers, we can continue to grow and develop through the creation of our legacies. It’s not time to stop; it’s just time to shift our energies to new creations — our successors.
Mary Slaughter is the chief human resources officer at North Highland Co. To comment, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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