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“Cat Stevens Knew the Score” – Seven Musts-Do Actions for the Generation X Leader

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Recently a health care industry senior leader shared with me his concern over the relationship gap he perceived between established Generation X senior leaders like himself and the growing body of Generation Y middle and upper level managers moving into hospitals and health systems. The conversation caused me to wonder if his views were isolated, whether there really is a broader issue, and if so whether something can be done about it. I discussed the question with other health care industry sector leaders and learned some interesting things. I married these findings to some background research. What I learned confirmed for me that the new generation gap is a reality and uniquely challenging. It exists well beyond the boundaries of health care extending into virtually every business sector. It is an issue of broad business culture evolution which an astute observer could have seen coming. The good news is the growing gap can be narrowed and the Generation X leaders who have spent decades dealing with the evolution of health care in the US are in the best position to lead the bridge-building exercise. To do so, they must aggressively shift their existing mental models and commit to seven critical actions.


“Every generation rebels against the previous generation.”

In 1970, the genius songwriter, Cat Stevens released his classic “Father and Son”. It was the anthem of late phase “Boomers” and the, then unlabeled, Generation X. The Baby Boomer father was saying to the Generation X son,

“It’s not time to make a change,

Just relax, take it easy.

You’re still young, that’s your fault.

There’s so much you have to know.”

The son lamented,

 “How can I try to explain, when I do he turns away again.

It’s always been the same, same old story.

From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen. Now there’s a way and I know I have to go away.

I know I have to go.”


Released forty-four years ago, this song is still poignant. It holds import messages for Boomers, the MTV Generation, and the Millennials. Perhaps the most obvious message is the most important. About every twenty-five years, the power and leverage aggregated by one generation passes to another. Those caught on the cusp of “what was” wonder why things can’t remain as they finally came to be. The Generation X folks who finally emerged from the shadow of the Boomers thought that surely their time in the sunlight would have lasted longer. Those in the ascending generation, currently Gen Y, only wonder why essential change hasn’t happened faster. The Mellennials of Generation Y just don’t understand how the MTV Generation can be happy grinding it out on the job every day. They feel those “Xers” need to lighten it up and have a little fun. It’s always been the same, same old story.


“So, it’s the same, but it is different.”

Having positioned that intergenerational estrangement (yes, there is even a name for it) occurs in every transition phase (and there have been many, many of those), I suggest that to a lot of people this one feels very different. The difference centers on the rapid escalation of technology as a component of day-to-day existence and the changes in relationships and communications that this escalation has driven and will continue to drive. Boomers exploded technology; the MTV Generation inculcated it into daily life, and the Millennials are now consumed by it and completely dependent upon it. Boomers bought the computers; the Xers couldn’t get enough of emails and cell phones; now the Mellennials can’t communicate without tablets, smart phones, texts, and Tweets. My wife, Susan, always advised our children, “Be careful what you ask for, you might just get it”. We Boomers and Gen X are the parents of Gen Y. We raised them to be what they are. Perhaps it remains our job to help them become all that they can be in a business world that they have inherited from us.

In healthcare in particular, but I suspect in every industry and in every facet of life, for three decades we consumed every technology available and continually asked for more. We knew that technology was changing lives (and even personalities), ostensibly for the better, but in any case it was changing people. We were shaping and evolving the generations of workers to come.


“We’ve made our bed, but we don’t have to be an old dog and just lay in it.”

Over the three decades I mentioned earlier, I noticed that the people around me in the hospitals and health centers in which I worked just kept getting smarter and smarter. As technology advanced, the people around me became more and more specialized and expert at what they contributed to the Mission, Vision, Goals, and Objectives of the organization. As my leadership duties, roles, and responsibilities grew, it became increasingly clear that I couldn’t hold myself out as the definitive “expert” leader. The people I led knew more about important things than I could learn in a decade of focused effort. Fortunately, I learned too that a leader does not have to be better at anything (except, arguably, leadership) than the people he or she leads. My leader expertise was based in a continuously maturing ability to work with and through the people of the organization to produce results, to achieve the Intended Results for organizational performance.

Generation X leaders and managers in the healthcare industry – and every other industry sector for that matter – who are struggling in this transition phase, need only get up from the bed we have all made and learn a few new tricks. We do not accept have to accept any suggestion that we are old dogs. As leaders and managers, we Boomers and Xers rose to our positions in today’s organizations because we demonstrated the capability to perform as necessary to achieve our organization’s goals and objectives. In fact, one working definition of Generation X identifies states that members “work toward long-term institution and systematic change through economic, media and consumer actions”. Generation X leaders and managers need only continue to lead and manage. However, some of us may find it necessary to shift the mental models we currently deploy in doing so. Our new models must reflect an awareness that leading and managing Mellennials is different from leading late Boomers and Xers. Most Gen Y children grew up with coaches. That is the leadership/management style they know and expect. Most Generation X parents grew up in confrontational dynamics with their Boomer parents. They have avoided, certainly in an aggressive manner, such confrontations with their Generation Y children.

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“Know your ABCs and your Y.”

Jason Dorsey, the voice of Millennials (who he defines as persons born between 1977 and 1995), and author of Y-Size Your Business shares that Gen Y members:

  •  Often have a feeling of entitlement (they have been provided much in their lives because their parents could provide it)
  • Are highly tech-dependent (but, maybe not as tech-savvy as we think)
  • Love instant gratification (“I want my reward now!”)
  • Have huge expectations (but, don’t always know or value what it takes to meet the expectations)
  • Don’t expect to work for the same employer their entire career (they will move on rather than process conflict with their current employer)


With even this limited understanding of what shapes and drives the Mellinnels, Generation X leaders and managers can do seven things to help them through the current generation transition phase:

  1. Be a Good Coach. Because you know Millennials love gratification and reward, affirm them. Let them know you appreciate their efforts. When you must be critical of them, sandwich the criticism. Praise, share the criticism, and close with another slice of praise.
  2. Empower, Don’t Dictate. Mellennials are used to coaches telling them what to do and how to do it. They have grown up with friends advising them on how to use technology or play a video game. However, aggression was not part of their equations. Use this understanding to empower them. Encourage them to take on a responsibility, to accept a project. Don’t be dictatorial and tell them they must “do this or else”. Millennials are used to choosing the “or else” without too much negative consequence. Define the return on investment. Let the Millennial know what is in it for them. Mellennials are focused on “me” not the organization (though they may be a loyal and committed employee for reasons of their own). Capitalize on their inclination toward immediate gratification.
  3. Demonstrate Sincere Interest. Mellinnels, as a group, are self-centric. They grew up being acknowledge and appreciated. They want to be acknowledged and appreciated as adults. When they were growing up, everyone on the team got a trophy at the seasons-end awards ceremony. Coaches made sure every child played some portion of every game. Performances were applauded regardless of the outcome of the event. “It wasn’t whether they won or they lost. It was about how they played the game.” It is important for Generation X leaders and managers to appreciate that these characteristics are not necessarily good or bad. They just are. Late Boomers and the MTV Generation grew up in a different environment with different rules and they were shaped by that reality in the same way that Generation Y members have been shaped by theirs.
  4. Actively Listen and Actively Observe More than You Speak. When I was growing up, I was taught that children did not speak unless a person in authority granted permission. Millennials have grown up with the right to speak whenever they chose to speak, to speak to whomever they chose to speak, and with the expectation they would be heard. Leaders and managers working with them now must recognize that the expectation is ingrained. As a Generation X leader or manager, you can fight this expectation, but you will not win despite any positional authority you may hold. Fighting this ingrained expectation will only result in your being seen as different and difficult. Let your Gen Y staff have their say and demonstrate that you have heard them, that you understand them, and that you are genuinely interested in their positions and views.
  5. Support Their Career Development Interests. Accept that Gen Y members are working in their own self-interest. Doing so does not mean they can’t make a real contribution to the organization. Take full advantage of what they have to offer. When they talk about leaving and seeking other opportunities, help them in the process. Millennials like “new and different”. Their attention spans are short (the influence of fast gaming, texting and Tweeting). Create opportunities for them to expand their professional envelope. Challenge their skill development. It will hold them in your company longer than an increase in pay.


Having shared five steps you, a late Boomer or Gen X, that focus on needs and expectations of Gen Y staff, here are a couple of things you can –even must do – to facilitate you own satisfaction with your status and role in this generational transition.

  1. Consolidate Your Own Sense of Self and Your Personal Vision. The five “Must-Do’s” above could reek of concession, compromise, and even abrogation of duty, role, and responsibility by you. However, only if you let them. Don’t go there. Rather, see this unique point in your career as another step in the journey of life-long learning. Many from each generational group will go through this generational transition without learning a thing about the other groups, much less about themselves. This is an opportunity for you as a leader and/or a manager to learn new methods for working with and through the people of the organization to produce results. As a leader who has spent decades working cross-culturally, I can share that every culture views the world differently, while its seems it should appear the same to everyone. The most successful people I have seen working internationally and cross-culturally are those who recognize and adjust to the reality of difference in perspectives and experience. They do so without losing their sense of themselves. Maintaining a sense of self is possible when a person has a clear personal vision. This vision is the product of identifying why one must do what must be done and reasoning through the means that must be used to get it done.
  2. Continue Your Own Technical Skills Development. “If you can’t beat them, join them.” One of the things that distinguishes Gen Y from Boomers and Gen X is their relative comfort with technology. The relationship you have with Gen Y staff will shift as you demonstrate increased orientation to, understanding of, and use of technology in their presence. When they see your evolving proficiency, they will become more comfortable with you. They may even consider it a statement of your interest in what matters to them. However, what is more significant is that you will feel more comfortable working with Gen Y staff when you don’t feel ignorant around them. Your comfort level with what they talk about and how they talk about it will increase when you actually know their language.
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