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Gen X leadership reflects liberal ideals and breadth of experience

Written off as disaffected and cynical in its youth, Generation X has long since proven its worth in business. But as Gen Xers take over the c-suite, how should HR make the best of a new generation of talent? Dominic Bernard reports

The first generation to land a kickflip has entered the boardroom: Generation X, i.e. those born between 1965 and 1980, is increasingly taking the wheel at British businesses.

Generations in the workplace:

Boomers, millennials, Gen Z: Do generational labels do more harm than good?

The Generation Gap: Why millennials are leaving the office on time, yet leaders still feel the need to work late

Gen Z and millennials struggling to cope with increased cost of living

While sweeping generalisations in regard to generations – or any other groups in the workplace, for that matter – are generally to be shunned, businesses have undoubtedly seen a cultural shift in the last decade that informs new leadership practices.

Environmental, social and governance issues (ESG) are now a key focus, and employees, arguably, expect their employers to take a stance on social issues.

So to help us understand just what it means to have Generation X take the wheel, we convened a panel of experts for another HR Lunchtime Debate, in partnership with UKG. Here are their four pointers for understanding how a new generation of leaders will shape the world of work.


1. Generation bridge

Generation X, the sons and daughters of the Silent Generation and early Baby Boomers, is uniquely able to bridge the gap between generations, according to Neil Pickering, senior manager of HR Innovation at UKG.

He said: “I think Gen X has a real breadth of experience to share, to say that we are in a transitional phase. I certainly know from my own experience how businesses, family, friends used to operate before the massive technological revolution of the past 40 years.”

Having experience as eager adopters of new technologies, and witnessed massive cultural change, Pickering said, means Generation X is well placed to understand how to bring millennials, Generation Z and their skills, together in businesses.

He added: “They’ve got a really important role to play in helping the leadership team, who will be baby boomers in many organisations, see and understand that the world is going to be a very different place.”

Jason Fowler, VP and head of HR for European services at Fujitsu, said Generation Xers’ broad perspective and typically liberal attitudes have translated into a real bonus too.

He said: “What makes me optimistic about Generation X is that they are at ease with a more liberal idea of what is normal – that there are many different versions of ‘normal’, and each individual’s normal is their own.

“We’re talking about a generation that has seen a lot of divorce, more liberal attitudes to birth control and sexual orientation. I hope that will give a better basis for engaging subsequent generations.

“They are able to recognise the value that [individuality] can bring to an organisation, that difference can improve your organisational performance and make it a better place to work in.”


2. You are what you do

This new generation has long learned to associate occupation and identity – but the sublimation of private identity into working identity, calling yourself ‘people professional’ or ‘entrepreneur’ before ‘Northerner’ or ‘Brit’, has also led the personal life to invade the workplace, according to Fowler.

He said: “How many times do you go to any kind of social event, and one of the first questions you will be asked is ‘What do you do?’

“Peoples’ professions, and who they are individually, have become so intertwined, and I think along with that comes a sense of expectation: if I am so intertwined with my career, and therefore with my employer, I want to work for an employer that at least has some values that I can respect and connect with.

“I think Gen X is perhaps the first generation where that started to matter, not only who you work for, and how much money they will pay, but also the reputation of the organisation that you work for. What are they doing to contribute to society?”

Pickering added: “I think the challenge for organisations, and HR teams especially, is understanding those expectations, and how the organisation can meet them.

“[It is important] to create a greater overlap between what the organisation gives and the employees expect: the bigger the overlap we can create as a business, the more we’re going to get back from employees.

“It creates a better psychological contract with employees: they want to stay longer; they want to deliver more for business.”


3. Good leadership stays the same

No matter the generation, the essential skills a leader needs remain pretty much the same, according to Pickering.

He said: “I don’t think it has changed, or is going to change. A good leader is a good leader. The key thing for leaders is to see the purpose of the business, and align it with the people. They have to have that ability to balance being authentic, understanding their people, and being able to effect change in a positive way.”

What has changed, however, is the attitude of the people being led.

He added: “The workforce these days is so insightful, and can be so cynical that it can see through anything that is disingenuous.

“Leaders have to have a very clear vision of why they’re doing things, and they have to be able to take employees with them on that journey.”

HR has a responsibility to their organisation when choosing this next generation of leaders, Fowler pointed out.

He said: “HR has a meaningful role to play here in setting the criteria for appointing leaders, because their leadership will become the reality of your organisation.

“Their values will become your organisation’s values, and what they do will be emulated; leaders have an outsized impact on the way people behave.”

Communication skills, engagement scores and learning agility, should be a focus he added. Key, though, will be leaders’ track record of developing their teams.

Fowler said: “HR has to be comfortable and credible enough to assert its decision criteria. The leaders that are able to curate the talent and become a catalyst for the advancement of others – they are the people you should be prioritising for progression, because they bring others with them.”


4. Let bygones be bygones

To bring out the best of Generation X, HR should also try to update their understanding of what makes an effective working environment.

Pickering said: “The key thing that absolutely needs to be ditched is that [sole focus on] the link between the hours people put in and the payment they receive.”

Given the strong link between work and a person’s identity more people now, he said, value a sense of belonging and purpose at work than the amount on their payslip.

Employers therefore have to get out of the habit of dictating the work they assign to employees, and have the courage to hand some control over to workers, said Pickering.

“Historically, we have used technology to pay people accurately,” he said.

“Now, we’re deploying technology to give people greater flexibility, greater control of their life, and make them feel a lot more valued.

“Actually, it benefits the organisation, the managers and the employees.

“We have to get over the historical [transactional] way of treating people: the start is understanding on a personal basis what people need, then allowing them to take greater control of that in their life at work.”

For Fowler, Generation X’s lesson on inheriting the throne of business will also be to reject old-fashioned, authoritarian styles of leadership.

He said: “Forget the notion that your worldview is the only worldview.

“Lead us knowing that it’s not your job to have all the answers. An effective leader creates the environment in which each of us thrives, and are then enabled to solve the issues.”

Click here to watch this HR Lunchtime Debate on demand.

The full article of the above first appeared in the March/April 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.