A leader’s biggest struggle is not the routine of the familiar but the journey of the unknown. It’s getting from where they are to where they want to be strategically, tactically, organizationally, developmentally, and most importantly, relationally.  It’s been said that the best way to impact your future is to change your present circumstances.  And quite frankly, I can’t think of a better place to ignite that change than by helping you to gain a better understanding of how to connect with what IS the future – the younger generation – the next generation of leaders. In today’s post, I’ll share some thoughts on how to reap the benefits of cross-generational leadership.

Let me be as clear as I can – there are still far too many leaders who believe in having someone earn their stripes and pay their dues – please don’t do this, don’t be this person. It’s not productive – IT DOESNT WORK.  Don’t focus on restricting someone’s development. Focus on unlocking their passion and their potential. Don’t seek to be affirmed by the tenured– seek to be challenged by those who offer something new. Don’t cater to the past. Focus on the future. I will encourage you to draw a line in the sand and ask you to refuse to allow your organization to reek of the stale scent of the status quo.

I’m going to ask you to stop complaining about the younger generation and instead become very intentional and very fluent in your understanding of them. By all means, mentor and develop them, but it’s time to make a paradigm shift in traditional thinking and for leaders to check their egos. Learning is not solely a top-down initiative, and what I want you to understand is that the next generation has just as much to offer you and just as much to teach you.

Here’s the thing – cross-generational corporate experiments aren’t working too well. Put another way; most leaders haven’t figured out how to deal with the challenges of integrating different generations and their respective belief systems.

We’re all experiencing the same collision of generations within the workforce, and while some are reaping the benefits of turning friction into opportunity, most are not. This is because many leaders have generations competing with one another rather than learning from each other.

Let’s take a closer look at these generations – Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) represent a huge segment of our population, and the Millennials or Gen Y (those born after 1981) represent an even larger segment, with their numbers now eclipsing those of the boomers. The problem is this: for the boomers, 75 is the new 65. Boomers are healthier, living longer, identify themselves with careers, and they either don’t want to or can’t afford to retire in this down economy.  So, at the same time, Boomers aren’t leaving the workforce. A huge wave of Millennials is entering the workforce. If you don’t already have 50 and 60-year-olds working side-by-side with a 20-something – you will in the future.

As a leader, you must learn to build bridges leading from old habits and comfort zones to the more fertile grounds of disruptive innovation. The best way to accomplish that is to align the creative energy of the younger generation and the experience of your more seasoned workers with your organizational values and vision. What I want to communicate is that you can run. Still, you cannot hide – sooner or later, knowingly or unknowingly, directly or indirectly, willingly or unwillingly, EVERY leader must deal with the changing demographic shifts in the workforce. It impacts culture, performance, brand, innovation, leadership development, succession, and even the sustainability of your enterprise. As a leader, you must get this right or fail.

Most of you understand what I’m sharing at a theoretical level – you’ve all seen the numbers and studied the trends. That said, very few of you, if you are honest, embrace these trends, and most of all, you likely don’t leverage them at a day-to-day practical level, much less at a strategic level. Let me give you an example of something I observe regularly – the sad reality is that when I assess a new client’s leadership team, it’s the exception, not the rule, that youth has a seat at the table. And the real kicker is it’s not because they don’t have young talent. They simply don’t know how to engage their younger talent. They don’t speak the same language, and they’re frustrated. This often results in a disengaged, out of touch, have always done it that way, leadership team. And when it comes time for succession, these organizations end up going outside the company to replace the old – old person with a new old person. Not only are most companies building in leadership obsolescence, but they have no real idea of how to correct the problem. They’re certainly not leveraging the completely underutilized Gen X’rs and Gen Y’rs falling through the cracks of their company.

Bottom line: if you don’t have youth represented in your senior management and leadership teams – get some. Once they sit at the table, you also need to give them a voice. Now comes the really hard part…you have to be willing to listen. You won’t ever engage Gen Y, and you won’t unlock their creativity, passion, intelligence, and commitment if you don’t respect them. Dismiss them, patronize them, or otherwise marginalize them and they’ll walk out the door. Show them you care about them, that you care about the right things – you know, the small things like values, ethics, transparency and they’ll be the fuel that runs your engine into the future. Failing to embrace this is the same thing as choosing to restrict your access to opportunity.