Execs and managers can take the initiative and find ways to effectively connect with younger staff, emerging leaders

I recently worked with a group of young emerging leaders who reaffirmed my confidence and hope in the millennial generation.

For three days in October, I watched this young, dynamic team boldly tackle challenges facing their organization, and I was impressed by how fun, open, energetic, smart, witty, and skilled they were. Think of any critical comment you’ve recently heard about millennials, and this group trashed every negative stereotype.

Because I spend much of my time as a facilitator and executive coach for upper-level executives and managers (read: middle aged), I sometimes forget how engaging younger leaders can be. In my workshops, it’s not unusual to hear an experienced manager voice passé cynicism when the group is generating ideas — a bit of “I’ve heard this all before.” The organizational system has likely disappointed this person and used up much of his or her youthful energy. With less experienced emerging leaders — and please know that I mean this in the most complimentary way — there’s a fresh cluelessness that is rather wonderful. They bring a renewal factor that reminds the rest of us to look again – and look differently.

If you’re a more experienced or higher-level manager, you may admire the energy and passion of these emerging leaders, yet find yourself unsure about how to meaningfully connect or know how to elicit what you and your organization need from them. Here are some thoughts that can help you develop more effective connections:

To bridge the generation gap, first be a leader worth following
From a leadership standpoint, it’s your job to be worth following. Why should younger team members follow you? What will you do to engage the best of what this group is capable of bringing? What vision for your organization do you offer? Where do emerging leaders fit into that vision? How are you relevant to them or the process? I’m often asked by experienced managers how to get younger employees to conform to “how things are done around here,” implying that they are somehow failing us. But maybe we’re failing them. The first step is to discover how anyone, regardless of age, would answer this fundamental question:  “Why should I follow you?”

To bridge the generation gap, appreciate what emerging leaders offer
Technology is one of the great dividing lines: upper-level leaders are often intimidated by the very thing that comes most naturally to their younger counterparts. Middle-age histories include pay phones, VCRs, green on black monitors, and the sound of analog phone line connections. Today’s university graduates, on the other hand, have never experienced a world without cell phones, DVD players, pixel-rich screen displays, and instantaneous, soundless wireless access.

On the Friday of my workshop with those emerging leaders, we met in a training facility provided by Microsoft — it was technology heaven. I watched as the younger members immediately started playing at all the display stations; they just got in there and started messing around, enjoying every moment. They instantly knew how to engage with whatever was in front of them while the middle-agers looked on with our own look of cluelessness. While on the surface these activities may look irrelevant, they actually reveal a rich thought process that can strengthen your organization and complement existing ways of leading. Your job is to create an environment that brings these ideas and ways of learning forward.

To bridge the generation gap, recognize your role in the relationship
It is incumbent upon you as a leader to initiate connections with younger team members, not the other way around. If the relationship is weak, frustrating, or just not happening, the first place to start exploring is within yourself. What are you doing or not doing to better understand their point of view? Only then can you meet them (or anyone else) where they are. When I work with emerging leaders, I am genuinely intrigued by how they think, learn, and problem solve. When I demonstrate this deep appreciation for who they are, I find they reciprocate with an equal interest in tapping into the wisdom I bring. It’s an energizing mutuality of valuing what the other has to offer. There are many gaps to my understanding and the only way I can learn is to ask questions and get to know them as well as I can. I find that there is a positive correlation between the extent of their willingness to better understand organizational realities and the amount of respect they feel is coming their way. This reaching out is a critical part of being a leader worth following.

People can discern when you value them or not. Actively look for ways to genuinely appreciate these emerging leaders and what they bring to your organization. It will give you hope, energy, and confidence in the future. I find this in my own kids, all now young professional adults, who consistently inspire me and remind me that someday, everything my generation creates will be passed onto them. Actually, that day is now.

Lori Brewer Collins is owner and managing principal of Artemis Leadership Group, a firm that focuses on leadership and organizational development, executive coaching and team facilitation. Collins’ background includes the Center for Creative Leadership – Europe as well as consulting and training for leaders and teams throughout Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East. She was a part of the original team at Saturn Corporation (General Motors) where she was leader of corporate culture and retail training. Her distinct gift is helping others to achieve clarity in the midst of complexity, uncertainty and change. http://www.artemisleadership.com/
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