As of 2019, Gen Xers are between the ages of 40 and 54. They have 20+ years of career experience under their belts and are looking ahead to another 20+ years to go. They were “onboarded” by driven Baby Boomers who rarely took time off or called in sick. Now they are followed by innovative Millennials who prefer flex time and never call in sick—instead, they text. Because Gen X is sandwiched between these two very large and prolific generations, they have never been a majority in the workforce, and they never will be. This overlooked minority status, however, has equipped many Xers to be effective generational translators. In the challenge of succession planning, you will need people who understand the value of both the wisdom of seasoned professionals and the fresh perspective of new talent. Properly motivated Xers will serve as great mediators in this process.
Solving for X
As the generation following Boomers, it stands to reason that Gen X is a good place to start building your succession plan. But there are two hurdles to overcome. The first is that there are not enough Xers to replace Boomers. The second is that many Xers are very independent in their approach to work and may be the last people to volunteer their time to learn from others without a very good reason. Therefore, for any of this to work, it cannot be perceived as some short-term initiative thrust upon people as the latest fire to put out. Xers will immediately see through it and tune out.
Around 2010, local public-school districts got excited about using smartboard technology in classrooms to improve education. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars outfitting the rooms, but very little effort in preparing the teachers. While smartboards have the potential to innovate learning, many were only used to play the occasional YouTube video. Implementing an effective succession plan will require your organization to equip all your people with an in-depth understanding of why this is important, how it will transpire, who can be reached for guidance, and what the mutual benefits and goals are. In other words, it has to become a part of your culture, or it will be lost as a good idea that doesn’t get used.
Gen Xers may be skeptical at first, because they have done pretty well on their own so far. But if your organization can build a strong case for the value of knowledge transfer, you will build powerful allies with this cohort. In order to entice Gen X to be mentored or become mentors, companies should reward and recognize them for their contributions. Talk up mentoring in meetings, speeches, newsletters, and performance appraisal discussions. Include mentoring corporate award programs. Most importantly, don’t replace mature mentors with their mentees before they retire, or your people will quickly conclude that being a mentor is the beginning of the end.
Xers have endured three significant recessions since they started their careers. They have seen the bottom drop out of several markets. Knowledge transfer should be positioned as an insurance plan for their economic futures. Every farmer knows that the only way to have a harvest in the fall is to plant seeds in the spring. So, they set a portion of their autumn profit aside to buy more seed for the future. Knowledge transfer takes a portion of your work week, but its purpose should be to gather the seeds of wisdom from your experienced workforce to be planted and cultivated in the emerging generations. This process should be designed to yield ever-increasing results. Hoping people will figure it out is like wishing the field will grow something useful. Both are foolish. You need a plan and you need to get to work. Because Millennials are here.