Bosses are from Mars, Employees are from Venus
In My Life
There’s a significant disconnect between those at the top of the organisation and the bottom that is now starkly apparent. There are several explanations, such as the one I posted about this week, that CEOs (and senior management generally) actually work differently to the rest of the organisation, with in-person meetings featuring heavily in their approach.
However, I want to explore some other perspectives here that are more related to trends than to explainable and observable differences.
One of these is the extraordinary change that has occurred in my lifetime in work. As someone born at the tail end of the Boomers period, I represent the generation that are leaving the workforce but are significantly over-represented amongst those who lead organisations (I can easily think of several who are older than me but still hold significant power).
When I entered the workforce in my teens, computerisation was ‘the new thing’, replacing rooms full of clerical workers doing paperwork. Indeed, almost everything was done on paper, often the carbonised type so that several copies could be produced to go down the various pathways through the organisation.
As I’ve said many times before, if you wanted to communicate with someone you had to go and talk to them. You could phone them if you were senior enough to have a phone on your desk but most of us had to walk to their desk and collar them there. You could send a memo but if it couldn’t be handwritten that meant tangling with the typing pool, and that was painful (don’t even get me started about getting a letter sent to someone outside the organisation!).
Senior people had secretaries that did all their typing and admin, managed their diaries and organised their working life. The rest of us tried to cadge favours off of our boss’s secretary.
Relationships were key to getting things done. There were only a few processes because everything had to be done on paper and that made things slow and difficult. There were very few metrics for the same reason.
So the people who are my age, who are at the top of a lot of organisations, grew up in a radically different world. I was quite early on the adoption curve but I have many contemporaries for whom things didn’t really change until mobile phones came along, specifically the Blackberry because that had email on it. So it’s only been the last 20 years that things have really changed for them, less than half their working life. And they’ve been able to insulate themselves from a lot of that change because of their seniority - until now.
So it’s not surprising that they are really struggling with the need to change and that, to them, it represents an existential crisis.
(What is this ?? A couple of weeks ago you were being kind to middle managers, now you’re being understanding about CEOs. Are you going soft in your old age?? Ed.)
However, that doesn’t excuse them from the responsibility to address the challenges, for which they are very generously rewarded. They are on the hook to solve it and, if they can’t, they should step aside. Before they are pushed, which they will be if they don’t fix it.
(Phew, back to normal. That’s more like the miserable curmudgeon we’ve come to know and love. Ed.)
It occurred to me the other day that I am exceptional amongst my cohort. I have a degree and that puts me in the 10% of my age group that went through tertiary level education. Today, getting on for 50% of the population (in the UK, at least) are educated to degree level.
A much higher number go on to get post-graduate qualifications, to Masters and to PhD level. The newer entrants to the workforce are significantly better-educated than my cohort, who are the ones in charge.
Many in the C-suite have MBAs, and these have become more common over the years. However, they are still quite rare in my age group, a bit less so in the one below i.e. the ones in charge. However, MBAs are a bit of a mixed blessing, teaching a very narrow syllabus until quite recently, and also one that is unsuited to the the challenges faced today. If they’ve all been taught the same stuff at MBA school, there can be a tendency to groupthink.
Is it too much of a leap to suggest that those at the top lack the intellectual power of many of those beneath them? That they are not as capable of complexity of thought as many that they manage?
Perhaps. But it’s another dimension to the gap between the top and the bottom that is so evident today.
(That’s me off of a few Christmas card lists!).
There are some key concepts that senior leaders are struggling with right now.
They need to acquire digital skills and ensure these are at a sufficient level throughout the organisation.
They need to develop their emotional intelligence and address people’s emotional needs in a sensitive and supportive manner.
They need to promote inclusion, diversity and equity within their organisations.
They need to enable collaboration and provide flexible working for their employees.
What these have in common is that they are all alien to senior managers in their 50s and 60s. Their bosses would never have even have encountered these ideas. These are new things that they have to get their heads around. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that some these challenge many of the fundamental beliefs and the worldview of a significant percentage.
However, they all come easily to younger cohorts, who have grown up with these concepts. They are much more at ease with the current environment, social and technological, than their bosses.
This is another source of friction. Younger employees simply accept the need for the concepts that senior managers still rail against. The outcome is often a stand-off followed by grudging concession.
A clear example of this is flexible working, where a number of bosses want people backing the office but the employees believe they should have some flexibility and autonomy. Another might be diversity and inclusion, something seen as a no-brainer by younger employees, but in recent layoffs, it’s been the teams that work on these that have been given the chop, which shows what the bosses think of it.
Another way in which top and bottom are pulling against each other.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
A final point is around expectations, aspirations and priorities.
It is very common for us to project our experiences and our perspective onto others. We see this when bosses say that their careers would not have advanced if they hadn’t been in the office having face-time with their bosses and developing their network, and so that's what younger employees should do.
We also project our expectations onto those below us. If we worked out way up the corporate ladder, then we assume that’s the path others want to take. If we decided to sacrifice some time with our families because we felt our job was more important at times, then we assume that’s a judgement others will gladly make.
But people entering the workplace after us aren’t starting from the same place. We made choices on the expectation of certain rewards that are not available today. We did what the corporation told us because we knew that would lead to a decent life style. It would enable us to get married and have children, buy a house, have nice holidays, and retire on a decent pension. As I pointed out last week, that’s not the deal on offer now. In fact, what’s on offer now is pretty crap.
It seems obvious but it is really hard for people in their 50s and 60s to get their heads around it. I hear it time and time again, from smart people who can clearly see the logic but still feel younger people should have the same aspirations that they had and should follow a similar trajectory through life. Of course, this is something that the popular press love to exploit with memes about the feckless youth who spend all their money on avocado toast and then complain they can’t afford a house, ignoring the fact that the deposit on a house is simply out of reach for many and represents an unfeasibly large number of avocado toasts for anyone to eat.
Those entering the workforce in the last twenty years are starting from a very different place and with very different horizons to those of us who did some twenty or thirty years earlier. They will have different aspirations because what is possible is different. They will have different priorities too, as some of us older ones might wish we had done. I wonder if the people leading many organisations are able to really understand those different perspectives. It’s not something that comes naturally to anyone.
I’m thinking aloud here, so I’d love to know what you think. You might think some of these issues are invalid, or immaterial. Perhaps you can think of some others. As we are increasingly be operating in a multi-generational, these are issues I think we need to wrestle with and understand better.
Email me at Colin@colinnewlyn.com, DM me on LinkedIn or Twitter @colinnewlyn