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Multi-Generational Leadership

By Jennifer Hermes posted 07-30-2019 14:43


As a Gen-Xer, the description below precisely captures my personal preferences and characteristics. Reflecting upon the accuracy of this statement led me to further analysis of the generational differences within our particular business office. I was curious as to the similarities and differences, as well as the challenges and opportunities these present to my leadership.

“Cut the fluff for Generation X. Members of this generation do not appreciate sugar-coated messages. Direct, timely communication delivered in an informal and tech-savvy way earns trust from this cohort. Repeated reminders and clichés turn Gen-Xers off of a message. Demonstrating competence, not longevity, builds credibility as the source of communication.1" - Leila Lewis, Illinois School Board Journal

Understanding the Generations at Play

Multiple generations coexist in today’s dynamic workforce. Education is no different. Although there is no definitive beginning and end to a generation, there is a general understanding that four distinct generations are currently in the workforce (Lovely, 2005). Here are some generalized characteristics of each generation:

TRADITIONALISTS (born 1922-1945)

  • 1% of the Workforce (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019)
  • Also called Veterans
  • Appreciate structure and order
  • Respect experience
  • Are eager to conform to group roles

BABY BOOMERS (born 1946 - 1964)

  • 21% of the Workforce
  • Defined as having considerable work ethic
  • Value teamwork
  • Strongly driven
  • Give credit where credit is due

GEN-X (born 1965-1980)

  • 42% of the workforce
  • Strive for balance between work and family
  • Tech-savvy
  • Flexible and adapt well to change
  • Independent, resourceful

MILLENNIALS (born 1980-2000)

  • 36% of the workforce
  • Also called Nexters or Generation Y
  • Unparalleled technical skills
  • Show initiative and appreciate flexibility
  • Value professional development opportunities

While no individual can be defined by their generation, Suzette Lovely has noted that, “…experts have found that specific life events bind a cohort together through shared experiences, hardships, social norms and cultural icons. These common threads create self-sustaining links that cause people to maintain similar attitude, ambitions and synergy” (Lovely, 2005). The forces that influence and form these distinct cohorts are thought to be the strongest during childhood and early adolescence.

Boomers were influenced by the expansion of television into the average home, where very traditional family structures would gather around and experience the wonder of television. Gen Xers were the first to be considered “latchkey” children, where single parent and dual-income families replaced the traditional family structure to become more of the norm. As a result of less supervision and nurturing, Gen Xers are characterized as having high personal drive and extreme survival instincts. Millennials were raised in an information rich environment, with computers and other forms of technology proving instant access to unlimited data. With heightened awareness of tragic human events (school shootings, kidnappings, global and domestic unrest) parents of millennials became increasingly involved in their children’s lives. Phrases such as “helicopter parents” capture this cultural shift, which included a parent’s desire to protect their children from both physical and social-emotional threats (Schullery, 2013).

A New Leadership Lens

Admittedly, I had not previously viewed the department specifically through the lens of the generation from which they belong. Upon doing so, I found many characteristics identified by Lovely to be evident within our small sample size. By generation, the staff is 50 percent baby boomers, 25 percent Generation X and 25 percent millennials. I’m pleased to note that all generations within the office have high expectations for each other, the department and the school districts we serve. Involvement in decision making is also a trait shared by all. In narrowing my focus to the baby boomers and the millennials, the generational differences become more evident. There were many differences that stood out to me.

Work Schedules

Although there is a great deal of work hour flexibility within the department, the baby boomers, for the most part, maintain a consistent, predictable schedule. In a study by Rodriguez, Green and Ree, it was noted that baby boomers value a challenging task that can be accomplished over several days and working alone on a regular schedule (Rodgiguez et al., 2003).

That certainly rings true in our office. The millennials in my office frequently flex their hours, from day to day and week to week, based on variety of factors both personal and professional. It is interesting to note, that as a Generation X leader, I am more focused on the successful completion of responsibilities and less so on the schedules of employees. The baby boomers will occasionally fret when they do not understand or cannot make sense of a millennials schedule. While the baby boomers have an extremely high level of work ethic, they sometimes have difficulty quantifying and therefore understanding, the work output of millennials as it is not always produced within a defined work day and may not produce a physical product. Millennials are accomplishing this through a seemingly endless and creative use of technology, our second major difference.


Millennials see technology as an extension of their being, a way of life. They view the workday as open ended as they are always connected. Armed with smartphones, iPads and laptops, millennials can work anywhere at any time. Baby boomers within the office will utilize technology, but more as a tool – something you need to use to accomplish a specific task. The baby boomers within our particular office have an attachment to paper files, prefer to look up information on a printed sheet instead of the source database and are typically a little more hesitant to try new techniques or launch new systems.

Risk Tolerance

Boomers can be risk adverse as they believe the old ways have served us well. Their beliefs are not without merit. The baby boomers have an extremely strong knowledge base. Not only are they extremely competent within their specific areas of responsibility, they also fill the role as district historians in many cases. Their knowledge and insight into the history and culture of the district is extremely valuable. However, as cautioned by Natasha Nicholson in her article Empower the Next Generation, as baby boomers leave the workforce to retire, vast amounts of knowledge will go with them and it is critical that companies ensure that knowledge transfer is occurring.

Work Preferences

I have noticed that baby boomers within the department may be reluctant to delegate. Oftentimes, they would prefer to work harder or longer to complete a task, even if there was additional help available. Nicholson explains that “in many cases, boomers feel like it is just faster and easier to do it themselves – if they have to delegate to someone younger or newer, it is going to take longer and they might screw it up.”6 It is important that leaders ensure that this knowledge transfer is taking place by embedding the responsibility within the job duties of both generations. “We have to create environments where it is safe to share and sharing is expected (Nicholson, 2008).”

I have occasionally run into this in our office. A baby boomer may hold on to a specific piece of information, task or responsibility as they see it is part of their power, a reason why they are needed and “the office cannot function without them.” On the other hand, the millennials are sometimes too quick to question and judge something before they have all of the relevant information of why things are the way they are. They can also appear impatient in that they would like the information just given to them, where the baby boomer would like to meet to review.

Bridging the Gap

As a leader, it is important that I recognize and embrace both working styles. Within our office, we have settled on a hybrid teamwork model. We will brainstorm ideas via an electronic gathering source, Dropbox or Google Drive for example, but then meet as a team to review the ideas in person, usually with a set beginning and end time. This process allows the Boomers the opportunity to explain some of the reasoning and history behind their ideas, the millennials to contribute to the conversation at anytime from anywhere and the Gen-Xers to feel a sense of accomplishment when the defined task, responsibility or project is completed in an efficient, collaborative way. We did not immediately stumble upon this blended model of collaboration. This model developed over time as the needs and interests of all involved became clearer to the group. Simply meeting or solely depending on technological means for collaboration did not work for our multi-generational office.

Leading this diverse generational department, it is my responsibility to recognize differences between the generations and use that information to help the team work and communicate better. A gentle reminder to the millennials on the importance of a personal touch instead of an email, chat or text or a subtle nudge to the boomer on the responsibility to share knowledge, will contribute to the overall working experience for all. I also must not neglect my own generational tendencies, but instead recognize the particular traits associated with Generation X that impact my own communication and role within the organization.

By Jennifer Hermes
Chief Operations Officer, CSBO
Lake Forest SD 67 & 115


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2019, March). Civilian labor force by detailed age, sex, race and ethnicity. Retrieved from Bureau of Labor Statistics: https://www.bls.gov/emp/
Lewis, L. (2014). Communicating Across Generations. The Illinois School Board Journal, 12-14.
Lovely, S. (2005). Creating Synergy in the School House. The School Administrator, 30-34.
Nicholson, N. (2008). Empower the Next Generation. Communication World, 14-18.
Rodriguez, R. O., Green, M. T., & Ree, M. J. (2003). Leading Generation X: Do the old rules still apply? Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 67-75.
Schullery, N. (2013). Workplace Engagement and Generational Differences in Values. Business Communication Quarterly, 252-265.