Hungry Like the Wolf: A Look at Gen X Leadership

In the pursuit of leadership positions, Xers have been plagued by a few key factors. Firstly, their generation is the least represented in the workforce, currently at twenty percent. Because they comprise a smaller piece of the workplace pie, and lack a majority, they’re often referred to as “the forgotten middle child.” The second barrier to their quest for top roles in organizations is their devotion to work-life balance. Unwilling to sacrifice family time to earn a promotion, Xers reject the perception that more hours equals more hard work equals a more leadership-worthy candidate. Further complicating matters, Xers have survived two crushing recessions during their professional lives. Their whole lives they’ve been fighting an uphill battle to earn their spot in leadership circles, but in a way that’s authentic to their Xer selves.

Despite all these barriers to upward mobility, Xers are still hungry to reach the top. Though the move toward that next tier might, for Xers, feel slow as molasses, they’ve recently made great strides, with 68% of all Inc. 500 CEOs being Gen Xers. The oldest Xers turned 50 this year, and as Boomers head towards their retirement years (though later than expected), more and more Xers will be looking to take on leadership positions and seeking out opportunities to manage and grow within organizations.

As Gen Xers continue to step into the leadership roles they’ve so coveted, consider helping them navigate these three potential areas of friction:

#1 –Banging their heads… against the grey ceiling
Boomers have entered their current life stage with more vigor, energy, and health than their Traditionalist predecessors. With this youthful mindset, 33% of Boomers are delaying the age at which they retire. And, why not? If you’re healthy, have a lucrative leadership position, and can navigate the workplace with ease, taking a few extra years to add to your retirement portfolio certainly doesn’t hurt. Not to mention, many of Boomers’ Millennial children are still relying on their parents for financial support. Every little bit helps.

As Boomers continue to delay retirement, it leaves the Xers that were vying for their leadership positions a bit frustrated. They aren’t seeing opportunities to grow beyond the grey ceiling made up of Boomers in positions above them. Rather than leaving Xers hanging, waiting for that shift to take place, try establishing leadership tracks that promote Xer development. Build in opportunities for lateral growth. This is a great way to show Xers that they’re valued and being primed for leadership positions to come. Don’t forget to get those Boomers involved as well; their institutional knowledge will help Gen Xers become better leaders.

#2 – Life in the (promotional) fast lane
Millennials are looking for leadership and growth opportunities far earlier in their careers than has been the norm—82% of Millennials are already showing an interest in management. Xers and Boomers understood that they needed to put in their time and pay their dues before they’d be considered for a leadership role. But from a Millennial’s perspective, having the relevant skills is all that’s necessary…so why wait? Many Xers feel they’ve only recently reached a point in their lives where they feel they have enough experience and expertise to comfortably take on leadership roles. Facing the grey ceiling and unexpected Millennial competition can be a source of frustration.

Xers need not be worried. When Boomers begin to retire in droves, there will need to be a steady stream of Millennials on the track to leadership. From a numbers perspective, Xers won’t be able to make up for the deficit that Boomers leave behind. There’s more than enough to go around.

#3 – The hard truth, with a little padding
With all generations, different experiences and resulting traits make for different approaches to leadership. This is all too clear in the Xer style of management. During Xers’ formative years, they developed an unfiltered, direct style of communication. As managers, Xers often clash with Millennials, especially when providing feedback. The direct, no-BS approach can be misconstrued as a lack of support. When turnover rates are so frequently linked to a bad feedback session, it’s critical that this issue is nipped in the bud before it becomes a much bigger problem with significant bottom line implications.

“Lead how you want to be led,” is a common saying, and it couldn’t be more wrong. Xers’ direct leadership style is probably not going to be the most effective track to take with other generations (though, it could be compatible with Gen Edge). The Gen Xers that take the time to understand their Millennial, Boomer, and Gen Edger reports will be the ones whose leadership inspires rather than demoralizes.

Over the next few years, Xers will continue to break into the leadership positions that they so clearly deserve. Clearly, they’re going to add their unique Xer flavor to the mix. Those that own their strengths, and can overcome the hurdles along the way, will serve as a positive counterbalance to the Millennial and Boomer styles. We’re looking forward to tracking this shift, as Xers bring with them efficiency and a no-nonsense approach that will be sure to make strong gains in the workplace.