As we make progress in our careers, and the workforce and world make their own progress around us, there can sometimes be great benefits to taking a pause and reflecting upon our leadership attributes, styles, and approaches – the ways in which we guide our navigation of those dynamic spaces. Working at the MACEM&PS is a good example: our professional team is comprised of a 50-year span in knowledge, experiences, attitudes, behaviors, energy, and expectations – and we’re definitely not unique; perhaps this even sounds like your team in 2021? It’s never not a complex ask to navigate that spectrum, but it’s especially so in a world (and workforce) still dealing with the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic. What does that usual complexity even look like, when you throw in altered health precautions, work-life balance priority shifts, or a swath of new technologies? This article is us taking a shot at analyzing how we do it, so that maybe you (or we!) can learn from it and improve. Best we can tell, our approach comes with three main components: anchoring core values, developing an awareness of guiding leadership attributes, and establishing a decision-making method.

Core Values

Inspire your team members to develop or revisit, nurture, and protect their core values, which will serve as a foundation to build meaningful, purposeful lives. 

Core values – the most important things to you as a person – can usually be defined by just a few words and at times are indicative of where you might be in your life and leadership journey. The wider the generational breadth of your team, the more likely it is that they’ll have a pretty wide variety of core values. They might value health, faith, people (family, friends, and colleagues), purpose, honor, all or none of the above, or something else entirely. But no matter their specifics, these values always serve to ground us and act as the “home base” upon which we can build vibrant and purposeful lives. Nurture, protect, and serve your own “home base” also.

Renowned poet and author Maya Angelou wrote, “There is something gracious and graceful about serving.” Leading and serving individuals at various stages of their lives and careers is challenging, yet so rewarding. Providing the inspiration to your team members and encouraging them to revisit their core values can be helpful – to them, and to the whole team as well. Americans are more open to discussing and nurturing ourselves and others in 2021 than ever before, but remember that, for some individuals, it’s a new process: you may be prompting them to establish core values for the very first time. Be sure to be supportive without encroaching – for some it’ll be easy; for others, knowing there’s no truly “right” answer, but there is support and advice if they need it, can help the experience along.

That balancing act of openness is particularly important when working with a wide career span of individuals – their core values are, almost by necessity, going to be many, varied, and sometimes even conflicting. Being willing to share your own and support your teams’ across their variety leads to meaningful conversations, and allows your team to see you and relate to you as a human as well as their leader. It also helps the individuals on your team plot their course through the value landscape during challenging times – knowing where their “home base” lies in relation to other people on the team (and why) can give structure to periods of stress or chaos. At the same time, becoming familiar with this landscape will help you as a leader to understand motivation and behaviors and provide opportunities for connections that nurture everyone individually, as well as the team in general.

The process is about building connection – you’re developing lines of information that lead to a symbiotic relationship within the team. The Servant Leadership Approach helps us to understand that “building relationships is at the core of shaping and nurturing human lives.”1 This symbiotic ecosystem can come to help define your team and your workplace. It can withstand departures and retirements, assimilate and welcome new members, and help provide everyone involved with a sense of “why they’re here.” And it is noticeable – new hires, interviewees, guests, and the like will often quickly perceive how healthy (or not) that ecosystem is. Once they do, it’ll help them plot their course too, for better or worse…so it’s worth it to aim for better.

Regardless of where you are on your career progression, anchoring your personal and professional lives in your core values is a great place to start. But for those exploring personal values for the first time, a great tool to get started is https://personalvalu.es.

Leadership Attributes

Once we’ve got our values in mind, we can narrow our focus a little, and begin identifying our top leadership attributes – those characteristics that guide specific relationships and influence credibility and actions. There are uncountably many to choose from, but these four (integrity, courage, teamwork, and authenticity) are some of the ones we’ve found uniquely relevant to leading a multigenerational workforce.

Integrity

Model and foster internal and external integrity factors with a focus on doing the right thing and appearing to do the right thing.

Like core values, integrity is another principle that needs to be understood, nurtured, and protected. Modeling and fostering integrity among multigenerational teams requires acting and communicating with intention, considering both internal and external factors before taking those actions. Internal integrity links to an individual’s core values and is often thought of as “honor” in leadership. External integrity guides the leader’s work and interactions with others – think actions and image. For example, external integrity is not only doing the right thing but also appearing to do the right thing. Spend enough time working in the public sector (as much of the MACEM&PS team has), and you’ll be hard pressed not to realize the importance of not only taking prudent actions, but also the value of how others view these actions. Doing the right thing for the right reason and ensuring understanding of the actions preserves integrity.

As a leader, by focusing on the importance of integrity at all levels of your organization and ensuring understanding of actions from the top, you can help cultivate an impression – and a reality – among your team that their leader is operating with transparency. This is especially important when leading individuals entering the workforce for the very first time, and/or when your team spans as many generations as ours does. It’s a perpetual cliché at this point, but it is true that team members of different generational backgrounds often carry differing expectations for, and understanding of, transparency and honesty. 

Transparency and honesty are different aspects, but related ones. And while transparency expectations can differ, expectations of honesty – from both leaders and team members – are usually consistent across generations. Few and far between is the workplace where people embrace being consistently misled. That said, be aware that while honesty in communications should be automatic, other barriers (based in confusion, fear, insecurity, etc.) do exist to get in the way. Promoting honesty also means removing those barriers. You likely won’t always be perfect at it, but the more you can remove and the more evident it is that you’re trying to remove them, the easier it can be for your team to accept those barriers for what they are, and begin to work through them.

Courage

Leadership and workplace courage can be developed through lifelong learning, networking, and resourcing to build and maintain competence and confidence in the field throughout your career lifespan.

Leadership requires courage from the first day of your career to the last. Each day, leaders must have the courage to put themselves, their knowledge, their ideas, their credibility, and their contributions out into the world. How people receive this talent and expertise may vary moment by moment, day by day, and year by year – and the challenge to be true to your core values (and your team’s) never ends: sterling careers can end based upon the last questionable decision made, and no matter how many good decisions came before it, the poor choice may govern how the leader is remembered. Part of the work of leadership is having the internal courage to consistently answer this challenge. Leadership careers are forever linked with change and challenge. 

While those changes and challenges can be exciting, however, they can also often generate fear or concern. Having the skills to lead people through their fear responses to achieve success is important – building their confidence is every bit as important as having your own. Consider the courage it will take to enter the workforce for the very first time during an active recovery to a global pandemic. Establishing a professional presence, network, value to a team, and building contributions can be daunting. By the same token, consider the courage needed to remain in the workforce for 40+ years, maintaining skills and competencies and integrity all the while…and now also be facing the unknowns of a pandemic-influenced world. Add to the mix the fact that both individuals may be working alone from a telework location – is that helpful or harmful to an individual’s person equation? Another unknown, only to be found out case by case. Then consider the courage of the leader supervising, guiding, and providing professional development for this wide spectrum of team members’ skills while fulfilling the mission of their organization. The economy of courage at the moment is one of everlasting demand across all sectors. If you as a leader can help provide and cultivate it, it can go a long way toward maintaining the relationship ecosystem that defines your team.

(Oh, and in most cases, these teams will be such that a leader – or any team member – cannot possibly know every detail of every task, initiative, or job function. Being willing to ask the right questions at the right times, understand the main concepts, remove barriers, provide the appropriate resources, and allow people to do what they do best even without maintaining complete control…that takes courage too.)

Teamwork

Establish a team culture and involve individuals early in the creation of new initiatives and continually in day-to-day functions to provide a meaningful purpose and build resilience.

One person can usually only achieve a finite level of greatness, but great teams can amplify the work of individuals, partners, and groups of people to levels beyond those commanded by the sum of their parts. Lead with great intention, focusing on connections and participation. This is not always easy. Leaders will set the direction for the team, link it to broader organizational and industry goals, and inform others. Without team participation at the appropriate times, only a diminished level of commitment to goals can be achieved – and rightly so: buying in to something blindly, even for the most reliable team members, is a risky purchasing decision. Including others in the development of a project concept, implementation, and evaluation can help establish a sense of ownership in the initiative and make that decision far easier.

Teamwork also means empowering individuals to share information and ideas. Team synergy might emerge naturally, but when working with today’s multigenerational teams and telework situations, it’ll likely need to be cultivated. Some team members will be naturally motivated to be an active contributor toward the positive team outcome in visible ways. For those who are not naturally inclined to join so obviously, take the extra steps to include them in conversations, find ways for them to contribute…or help them find those ways themselves.

One effective means is the use of inquiry. Simple leading questions go a long way to build confidence in connecting and contributing. Asking an individual questions like, “What are you reading or researching that could support this project?” “How does this project relate to your current work?” “How do you see yourself contributing to the project goals and objectives?” “Based upon your experience with a previous project, what pitfalls do you envision?” or especially, “How do you paint your vison of the end result of this project?”

Sometimes the issue will require a more practical lens: “What aspects of this project are stuck, or what barriers can I remove for you?” In those cases, the same principle applies – your role as a leader is to help your team members find their way to success. For some that’s a question of exploration and principle and invitation to be involved…for others it’s as simple as knocking down a hurdle on the way to a destination they already have in mind. 

The creation of effective teams often finds new and experienced individuals working, learning, and producing together and improving the skills of all those involved – including you, their leader. Over time, the synergy to create and produce also builds a resilient team culture as well as resilient individuals. Establishing a resilient team culture strengthens internal and external relationships and is known to contribute to a sense of overall well-being. Harvard Business Review authors Rob Cross, Karen Dillon, and Danna Greenberg also advise that “A well-developed network of relationships can help us rebound from setbacks by: 

  • Helping us shift work or manage surges
  • Helping us to make sense of people or politics in a given situation
  • Helping us find the confidence to push back and self-advocate
  • Helping us see a path forward
  • Providing empathic support so we can release negative emotions
  • Helping us to laugh at ourselves and the situation
  • Reminding us of the purpose or meaning in our work
  • Broadening us as individuals so that we maintain perspective when setbacks happen.”2

The workplace is a top relational source of resilience! Building your team culture is a wise investment of your time.

Authenticity

Lead with authenticity through consistency in thought, action, and adherence to core values and attributes.

Leading with authenticity and ensuring that you consistently act within your core values and attributes is the ultimate way to build team and organizational trust. Teams cannot randomly generate vast stores of trust at will, but they can build it through consistency of thought and actions over time.  A lack of that consistency degrades team stability and offers an environment in which fear can surface. “Leaders are watched more than they are heard. So by being authentic, you encourage those around you to be authentic too.”3 How inspired, productive, and happy at work would you be if you had an authentic leader who modeled this behavior, and it was infused into all team members’ lives? Compare this to the alternative, and the benefits should become fairly obvious, fairly quickly.

But remember, we’re considering multigenerational teams. Even for teams of a consistent one or two generations, it’s going to matter at what point an individual arrives in the workplace and is comfortable with being genuine, has built the knowledge and experience base to act with consistency, and is confident enough to interact without bias and barriers. When your team spans additional backgrounds, ages, and experiences, those questions are even more important – what you might understand or assume about what one person needs to be genuinely open may not apply in the least to another team member. If they come from a generational background with sufficiently different expectations about what your enterprise – or a job/career in general – is for, they may even need the exact opposite. Time in the role is a similarly variable element: authenticity may be present on the first day of work or not until the last day of a career. Understanding these barriers and differences, and building an environment that allows each individual to grow in competence, confidence, and feel more at ease with authenticity at their own pace is a key to making a team stretching as far along the timeline as ours does, work.

Decision Making Process

Develop and communicate your leadership decision-making process, and make it one that will result in clear, well-informed, and timely actions.

Leadership decisions are becoming more complex each day. The speed of information, disinformation, and expectations of immediacy can challenge the most experienced leader. Decisiveness requires situational awareness and an accurate and quick processing of information to take action. At times, a leader will need to make decisions independently and at other times collaboratively. Both methods will have effects on all the elements of your team that we’ve discussed and cultivated above…so both will require a process, to ensure that what’s going on is understood, or at least consistent enough to minimize any potential harm done to those other positive elements. 

Find a leadership process that works for you, then test it, adapt it, and practice it. Remember, “while change is inevitable, growth is a choice, an intentional decision to learn, advance, and benefit from a given situation.”4 You might find that your process needs to be adapted to a new work and leadership environment. But regardless of your method, share it with your team. Help them to understand your thought processes, how you collect, synthesize, and share information and monitor the impact. Help them to understand assessment and reassessment points and contingency planning. Through this process, team members become valuable sources of thought, data, and options. Notice the generational differences and how they will uncover pitfalls and innovative solutions. You may not be able to incorporate all of each of their wishes into the process you choose, but having invested eyes on the problem can at least give you a sense of the landscape of options and concerns you’re facing – helping you be courageous enough to navigate the environment as well. And who knows? You might find a way to grow your leadership process in just the direction that sparks your team to grow alongside it.

Conclusion

Alright. We’ve analyzed a bunch and said a lot. But at the end of the day, developing your own style of leadership really is a lifelong process. Today, leading multigenerational teams requires service, communication, and inclusion – service freely given to others to allow them to find success within themselves at every point along their career continuum. “Time is the currency of leadership,”3 so spend it wisely. Dedicate your leadership to service by modeling core values, integrity, courage, teamwork, and authenticity. Mentor, coach, listen, and be a champion for your people, your team, your organization, and your profession. It likely won’t be perfect overnight, but keeping at it – consistently working to allow others to shine – will keep you moving in the right direction for as long as you’re willing to go.

Resources

Bahn-Henkelman, J., Henkelman, J., & Schroeder, R. (2012). Becoming a servant-leader: A workbook for bringing skill and spirit to professional and personal life. Gabriel Center for Servant-Leadership.

2Cross, R., Dillon, K., & Greenberg, D. (2021, January 29). The secret to building resilience. Harvard Business Review.https://hbr.org/2021/01/the-secret-to-building-resilience

3Diviney, R. (2021). The attributes: 25 hidden drivers of optimal performance. Random House. 

4Riboldi, J. (2020). Strategic transformation: how to deliver what matters most. Advantage. 

Images via: Mario Aranda from Pixabay (cover), John Hain from Pixabay (header 1), Tumisu from Pixabay (header 2), Arek Socha from Pixabay (header 3)

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