Early in my career I was hired to be the managing editor of a daily business newspaper. I remember my first day on that job well.
As I walked around and introduced myself, I quickly realized I would be managing people twice my age and that I was considerably younger than most of the staff. Upon introducing myself as the new managing editor, some people laughed, some ignored me. One person chastised me by saying, “You’re the new editor? Give me a break. I’ve been working at this place longer than you’ve been alive.”
At the end of the day, I approached the publisher and shared my concerns and observations. The publisher responded candidly: “Look, I didn’t want to like you. I interviewed a lot of people for this job, but the fact is you were the best qualified. So, I decided to take a risk and I hired you. You can do this job. It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it.”
The publisher was right. That job wasn’t easy; it was hands down the most difficult job I’ve ever had. But that’s not the point. What I really want business leaders to ponder is the publisher’s decision to take a risk and hire someone young.
It’s worth pondering because far too few leaders are opting to do this at a time when the business world desperately needs to hire young leaders.
Almost every single sector, save for technology, is predominantly led by people in the baby boomer generation, or those born between 1946-1964. When this generation came of age, the boomers were the largest generation in history and had the opportunity to move into positions of power and influence and stay there.
However, at the end of 2015, and for the first time in 34 years, boomers are no longer the workforce majority. It is now Generation Y, also known as millennials, and the majority of workers are in their late 20s and early 30s.
We’re experiencing the largest shift in human capital in history, yet one generation still holds nearly all the power in nearly every sector in nearly every corner of the world and the proverbial baton isn’t getting passed.
Consider these statistics:
- Gallup reports that less than one-third of U.S. employees have been engaged in their jobs and workplaces during the past 17 years.
- Deloitte’s Shift Index demonstrates that the profitability of 20,000 U.S. organizations has been declining since 1965.
- The Conference Board reports that job satisfaction has been on a steady decline since 1987.
- Executive research projects continually draw the same conclusion: succession planning isn’t a priority for 70 percent of executives.
Why is this happening?
For starters, we inherited institutions designed for the 20th century, which are unable to cope with the mounting pressures of constant change. Many organizations are still structured to maximize efficiency by way of clearly defined roles, which automatically creates resistance to any variance.
Whether they realize it or not, many companies today are structured such that they actively discourage passion.
Think about it. In the 20th century, corporations were built for scalable efficiency. Jobs were well defined and organized to support processes designed to meet plans and forecasts. Workers were trained to protect company information. Any collaboration with those outside of the organization was highly monitored or even discouraged. Most innovation was driven from within the company’s four walls, often without feedback or customer interaction.
Now we’ve moved into the 21st century — the talent economy. And today’s workers certainly don’t want to work in Industrial-era organizations with clearly defined roles, organizational silos, top-down management or predictability.
In the turbulent and competitive marketplace, we need leaders who are willing to disrupt the status quo, working in collaboration with young professionals willing to innovate and bring new solutions to the forefront. We need talent generation.
Consider Google. Employees are drawn to Google because working there means something more than just working for a technology company. In fact, Google is successful for reasons that have very little to do with what the company actually does.
Google was built on the premise that people want meaningful work, knowledge of what’s happening in their environment and the opportunity to shape that environment. Simply put, Google put its employees at the center of everything.
In other words, Google embodies the two trademarks of a 21st century organization: People first and future focused. Google has grown into a business that earns almost $90 billion in annual revenues and continually earns honors as the best company to work for in the world.
When more leaders make the conscious decision and take the appropriate actions to value people more than profits and invest in the next generation of talent, that’s not only when we will succeed at collaboration and innovation, it’s when we will reverse the decline, resolve the conflicts and ultimately prevent our economy from failing.
That publisher who decided to take a risk and hire me? I later found out the publisher had to convince the newspaper’s owner and board of directors to hire me. I was the youngest person and the only female on record to have held that leadership role.
I was a risk. And yet, the publisher advocated for me to have the opportunity to lead. But isn’t that every leader’s responsibility?
We desperately need leaders who are willing to disrupt status quo and work alongside and advocate on behalf of younger generations. The best leaders seek to add value to an organization, not slow it down or kill it entirely. The best leaders realize they don’t have all the answers and will benefit from the insights of a generation raised amid disruption and rapidly evolving technology and seeing the world through a different lens.
Employee engagement and productivity have steadily been declining for more than 50 years, and few have raised their voices in opposition or dedicated themselves to initiating a change.
It’s time to think about leadership, because our leadership is aging and our talent practices are failing. It’s time for a change. It’s time to make the future a priority for every generation.
Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University, a leadership advisory firm. This article is based on insights from her most recent book, “Talent Generation.” To comment, email email@example.com.
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