What makes a great leader? Is it the capacity to inspire loyalty, the ability to articulate a vision, emotional intelligence, or persuasiveness? Does a company need a leader whose values are culture-based, or one whose values are aligned with the needs of shareholders and the marketplace?
Maybe it depends, which is why it’s so important for job seekers and future employees to do a bit of digging to ensure the companies they’re interviewing with holds values compatible with their own. Often this boils down to trust. Plain and simple. And yet oh so complex.
Searching out the value structure of a company culture is more important than ever as it relates to recruiting and retaining talent. In my discussions with clients and candidates, I hear often that we are in the middle of a sea change – a generational shift in values. As Millennials make deeper inroads into the workplace, they’re bringing a new set of values, a need for a collaborative culture and a lack of interest in existing workplace structures that is creating tension among workers of other generations. People dance around this a lot, but it needs to be said: things are changing, and fast. Business leaders must be ready to accept that workers’ value systems are in flux, and be prepared to manage through complexity and change.
This topic came up when I was talking with a client about a talent retention challenge he was facing. His office is populated by workers of three generations: Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers. Friction in the office was disrupting productivity, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on the real issue. He runs an analyst firm with a fairly flat management structure. Leaders in this workplace with 20+ years of business experience do most of the strategy and management. These people tend to be Boomers in this culture. They’re used to hierarchical management – in other words, they’re accustomed to giving and taking direction, acting independently but consulting with top management, mentoring a lot (we hope), and collaborating in a formal way. They value independence, loyalty and the free exchange of ideas (we hope).A middle layer of GenXers does most of the day-to-day client management – the tactical work – while learning the ropes of strategic counseling. This group is, not surprisingly, a skeptical but hard-working bunch very focused on upward mobility. They, like the Boomers, are comfortable with limited hierarchy. Skilled client relationship managers, they expect everyone to pitch in and pull their weight. They value self-reliance, don’t always follow the rules, are loyal to themselves, and demand work-life flexibility.
The youngest group, the Millennials, supports the client managers. They prefer to work collaboratively but with people of their peer group. They have no problem questioning authority, love to brainstorm, and don’t always understand why their ideas aren’t implemented. They expect to progress quickly in their careers but aren’t always in agreement with senior management on the path. They value innovation, are loyal within their peer group, value social interaction and see work as a means to an end.
When we mapped out the different value systems of employees, my client began to see the problem: his values, which the company was built around, were accepted by the senior team, questioned by middle management and viewed as out of date by the junior team. The generational misalignment in values had created a culture of distrust. Client work was suffering. What could he do? We came up with an exercise along with HR: employees were asked via a blind survey to list the top five things they liked about working in the company, the five least desirable factors, and encouraged to share their ideas for improving the work culture. After analyzing the responses here’s what my client and I realized was needed:
A shared purpose: Mission, vision, and values – everyone had to understand the value system, the purpose, the mission. Even if everyone viewed with their own unique lens. My client assumed everyone was on the same page; His page. This was not the case. He was surprised by this result but immediately put a blended team together to tackle presenting a single, coherent story together. This was the first step to a more clear employer brand.
Training to ensure skill levels and competency: Necessary to ensure all employees trusted the skill levels of their colleagues.
More, and better, communication: The client thought communication cross-teams was working, and he thought he communicated well, but the different values of the age groups made it obvious this area needed work.
Clear reward system and growth path: The path to upper management had to be articulated, expectations set, and reward systems demystified. And be social. Yes, I mean social media.Yes, I mean HR Technology if it fits.
Acknowledging and celebrating differences: To rebuild trust, the client needed to be clear that he was aware of different styles and willing to honor the diversity of the group.
It wasn’t an overnight fix, of course. A values and culture misalignment happens over time, and requires an investment of time, trust, open communication and shared sense of commitment to repair. As the workplace continues to change, as Boomers retire and GenX and GenY moves up, this scenario may be more common. Leaders need to be prepared to take alternative routes of thinking into account to build and motivate winning teams and values. You will not keep your top talent by sitting on the sidelines and hoping. Taking action matters.
Oh and btw … I am hoping soon we can move way from generational stereotyping but it’s still alive and well in my conversations. Only when I was able to point out to him generational “facts” was he able to really give me a buy-in for these ideas to implement. See the irony here? The truth is we are more similar than we give ourselves credit for. Sometimes it’s as simple as communication. Often this is the missing link. Here’s to hoping.
A version of this was first posted on Forbes.