Next-Generation Leadership

JNott recently concluded a great series on leadership skills for the 21st Century, and Acronym has declared May to be Leadership Inspiration Month, and the combo got me thinking:

What qualities will the association leader of the future need?

Rather than putting together some laundry list, I thought I’d focus on the two that seem most important to me:

Nimbleness of Mind 

It took us a while to catch the bug, but boy howdy, do associations love planning these days.  We love strategic planning.  We love action planning.  We love work planning.  We love metrics.  We love data.  We love environmental scanning.  We love SWOT analysis. We love Gantt charts.  We love Microsoft Project.  You’d think we were getting ready to invade Normandy, rather than just trying to roll out the renewal notices on time.

And that’s all great – really it is.  A constant Ready –> Fire –> Aim approach can get you in big trouble.

But the thing is, you can’t plan for everything.  Associations were never the most change-friendly organizations in the first place, and all this process-heavy planning infrastructure is slowing us down even more in a time when the *pace* of change is accelerating.  Rapidly.  News cycles, already 24/7, have been sped up by social media.  Competition from free and for-profit sources is increasing – and neither of those types of groups has to wait 6 months until the next board meeting to even get an idea on the agenda to be considered.

I’m not saying fly by the seat of your pants all the time – that can leave you without the available cash to make payroll at the end of the month.  But I am saying that the ability of our leaders to perform rapid analysis, trust their instincts, adapt, and come to decisions quickly is going to be critical to our ability to thrive as an association community.

Cross-Generational Fluency

We have 4 generations in the workplace at the same time for maybe the first time ever, as younger Silent generation members and Boomers delay retirement, while Gen-Xers are firmly in the middle of our careers, and the Millennials are moving en masse out of their schooling years and into their careers. Even the most cursory review of the available datareveals that these generations have MASSIVELY different ways of interacting with both people and technology. That lack of shared experience and understanding can produce significant friction in the workplace.  Does any of the following sound familiar?

  • That old guy in my office still prints out all his emails and dictates his responses to his assistant!  What’s wrong with that guy?
  • Why won’t those damn self-centered Boomers retire already? Or at least help prepare younger people for leadership positions?
  • Stupid Gen-Xers – they’re so secretive.  Why do they always want to work on their own?  What’s their problem with team work?
  • Why does the 25 year old program assistant think she’s too good to make copies?  And why did she apply for that open director position?  She’s only been here 6 months!

One of the key management lessons I’ve learned over the years is that you need to meet people where they are, not expect them to come to you.  Our leaders are going to have to become multi-generational-lingual in order to be able to get the most out of our teams.  For more on this idea, I highly recommend Karen Sobel Lojeski’s work on virtual distance.

What do you think?  What do our next-generation leaders need to do and be to make sure associations continue to thrive?


7 thoughts on “Next-Generation Leadership”

  • I think your second point is key – it all starts with communication. As a Millennial, I don't really feel that I have trouble communicating with other generations, but that doesn't mean other generations haven't had trouble communicating with me!

    I think flexibility is key for any leader, as is adapting to change. Future leaders (and current ones too, I guess) also shouldn't be too afraid to fail.

  • Thanks for sharing Shannon. I think fear of failure is a problem for a lot of people, but it seems like it hits associations particularly hard. Which is odd, when you think about it, because associations are generally far slower to fire staff than for-profit organizations, so you'd think that would make us less afraid to try things.

  • I think an interesting trends to watch for in the future is leadership teams. Leading the multi-generation workplace is a challenge for a person of any generation. Why not truly embrace the generational diversity inherent in our workplace, our communication styles, and our memberships but putting cross-generational teams in positions of leadership and authority?

  • @Eric – this is also a trend in pedagogy. If your school years were anything like mine, we were reprimanded for working together on pretty much anything, or even helping classmates with their homework and the like. It was pretty stupid, of course, because no one works alone in the real world. The school environment has gotten much more realistic, and now teams working on assignments is the norm. Why not take it to the next level and give those teams some real authority?

  • Cross-generational communication will have to work in every direction. Everybody needs to learn how to effectively communicate with everybody else. They all need to stop assuming that their own styles are superior to others.

  • Agreed, David – and it's hard because of course your own style feels natural to you, which means everyone else's is going to feel strange, at least initially. We need to all feel comfortable enough with ourselves and each other to just ask what people prefer – and then courteous and thoughtful enough to remember it and communicate in ways the *recipient* likes, not necessarily the sender.

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