This article was first published by the Arizona Society of Certified Public Accountants in the November AZ CPA magazine.

This July, I traveled to Bend, OR to deliver a talk about aligning cross-generational communication. The audience, predominately Baby Boomer, thought younger generations struggled with managing their time, delegating tasks, professionalism when interacting with key stakeholders, and were taking little responsibility for professional growth.

Maybe this sounds familiar? I believe organizations truly desire to find unique ways to fast track their up-and-comers into leadership roles. The trick becomes facilitating this growth in a manner commensurate with the way the emerging leader learns, not simply the way the organization currently offers advancement. I call this mass customization – an organization’s capacity for offering an a la carte menu of development alternatives that meet an emerging leader where he or she is at a specific point in time.

To explain this in more depth, let’s return to my July talk.

When I kicked off the presentation, I displayed a slide with the following quotes from a magazine article –

“From Ernie, the uncle –
What is the game? The same game as the college game or the politics game. The name of the game is ‘beat your father at building a better world for your son’. Richie cannot accept the concept that anything so dependent on existing institutions can leave a man free to think and act as he pleases in private life. Yes, all the businessmen I know are free thinkers and intellectually curious, knowledgeable and more interested in making a mark than in making a buck.

“From Rickie, the nephew –
Partly, I am lazy; I don’t feel like working this summer. I am writing a book and taking a history course at Columbia. Even the dullest art history book gives me a greater sense of freedom than being imprisoned in an office. I don’t feel like being confined; I want my time to be at my own disposal. I suppose I’m spoiled. I’m copping out.

Most of the audience thought Rickie was a Millennial. He wasn’t.

This quote is pulled from an article in the May 17, 1968 edition of Life Magazine.

Ernie is a Traditionalist born between 1900 – 1945. Rickie is a Baby Boomer born between 1946 – 1964.

Another example. My next slide displayed the following quote –

Lazy, entitled, selfish, shallow, unambitious shoe-gazers … [who] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder … They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial … They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers and Rolexes. What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes.

The audience also thought this language described Millennials. Wrong again.

This is a quote from the July 16, 1990 edition of Time Magazine. The author is a Baby Boomer and he’s describing Generation X born between 1965 – 1979.

What was my point in showing those two slides?

It was a reminder that members of all generations, especially when they’re teenagers and in their 20s, challenge the status quo, are “spoiled” or “entitled”, and lack ambition. Yes, millennials (born between 1980 – 2000) do have high levels of self-regard. But the more factual statement would be that most young people, throughout history, have displayed such tendencies. Somehow, more experienced generations have forgotten that they more readily accepted societal norms as they aged and experienced trial-and-error learning. Millennials will, too.

To start connecting to emerging leaders, first understand the different generations in the workplace are far more similar than they are dissimilar. Creating connection is about recognizing where he or she is in their life’s journey, recognizing that you likely went through similar ups and downs, and offering sincere empathy, mentorship, and encouragement. I encourage you to read Retiring The Generation Gap by Jennifer J. Deal. Deal shares incredible research about the ten principles of how humans from different age groups are similar.

The more time I interact with finance and accounting leaders, the more I see how these minor differences are perceived. As an example, Baby Boomers, because of what was happening in society in their teenage years and 20s, have core values focused on being loyal to their children, seeking personal gratification, and having a spend now mentality. Millennials have core values associated with having fun, liking personal attention, and continual education. Although the core values are different, what drives that difference are society’s norms as each was going through their younger years. What makes these two groups the same is that each has core values shaped by that time in history and that gain them acceptance via family, friends, and their community.

Traditionalists display personal attributes that make them very committed to the company they work for, they’re conservative, fiscally prudent, respect authority, and are task oriented. Generation X craves independence, likes “free agent” careers, are skeptical of institutions, are adaptable, and think entrepreneurially. At its core, each is seeking respect for their contributions to society. Because corporations offered cradle-to-grave employment when Traditionalists were being raised, they sought respect through achieving the company’s goals. Generation X wasn’t offered cradle-to-grave employment and they therefore prefer independence from similar institutions instead seeking respect for their entrepreneurial accomplishments.

Millennials do prefer work environments that are collaborative, holacratic, achievement oriented, and that offer experiential learning. This allows them to leverage their extensive education to use advancing technology to serve consumers. Generation X likes positive environments that are fast paced where they have continual access to leaders. They’re eager to learn via a coach or podcast, love multi-tasking, and are great task managers. Baby Boomers like friendly, democratic, hierarchical workplaces that offer traditional classroom lecture. This allows them to be politically savvy, see the big picture, and remain service oriented. In their own way, each generation has a distinct need for continual learning. Being inside these environments allows each to learn in a way they’ve been acculturated to learn.

As you consider how you’re going to create connections with your emerging leaders, remember that the issue isn’t how they’re different, the issue is how society shaped those persons to value what they do. All generations are far more similar than they are different. We should remain focused on facilitating our emerging leaders’ professional development in a manner commensurate with the way the person learns, not simply the way the organization currently offers advancement.

How can the company you work for offer an a la carte menu of professional development alternatives that meet an emerging leader where he or she is?

How can you look in the mirror, reflect on the mentorship you would’ve enjoyed when you were younger, and provide that support to help your emerging leaders grow through the accomplishment of your organization’s objectives?

As Traditionalist Uncle Ernie said, from my story above, all men (and women) are more interested in making a mark than in making a buck.