A New Generation Gap

The leadership of today’s organization is largely in the hands of baby boomers, my generation. It is a small leap of reason to say that we shaped, if not created, today’s turbulent economy. The greatest generation gave us an economy that provided a solid foundation to build on. They moved beyond the war, overcame the great depression, and left us an opportunity—with the promise that “You can be anything you want to be.” Being kind, I would say we haven’t seized that opportunity. Being honest, I would say we flat-out failed to build a similar solid foundation for those who will follow us. We have made a mess. We are not the victims of changing economic conditions, we created them. We have maybe ten years to do something about it.

I have been researching the gap between the generations’ impact on the economy of the United States and have not found an acceptable metric to quantify my conclusions. There are just too many variables. One thought hits me hard, though; the next generation may be the first in a long time (ever?) that are not be better off than their parents. I think we baby boomers own that.

Because this is a blog entry, not a white paper, let me offer a few bullet points that should start a little discussion:

• We didn’t invent greed, but we took it to a new level. The pursuit of individual wealth has too often trumped the collective national good. And not just at the executive level; some labor rates grew beyond the ability of companies to pay them and remain competitive. The gap between haves and have nots has grown. We are beginning to pay a price for that greed, and many are finding their golden goose has cancer.

• We confused profit with value. Maximizing profit led us to cut costs so dramatically that we may have sacrificed the very survival of our enterprises. Our miserly investment in talent development, research and development, and our relentless push to lower supplier costs have weakened historically strong brands.

• Too many MBAs were in charge. Sorry about the toes I just stepped on. But running a business is a lot different from building a company. We became managers; we have to become leaders. Of course we must be fiscally disciplined and focused on metrics. A quick (albeit unscientific) look at some of our more troubled companies shows a career path to the executive suite that runs through finance. It is not working.

• We have been reluctant to accept responsibility. I hear often that we are just unlucky to be leading in a very tough economic time and are doing as well as can be expected. Baloney. We made this economy. I hear (and observe) a lot about operational excellence. Look back at your metrics; if they have improved continuously, it isn’t a failure in operations … I suggest it is a strategic failure. We own that.

• And one more that will probably incite the masses! I believe that our parents unwittingly made us soft. We had our needs and wants indulged by parents driven to make sure we had more than they had had as children. We can’t leave a great legacy without honest-to-goodness hard work.

I’ll let the blog discussion take this further. I have many more observations, but how about yours? I have high hopes for my generation, but there’s not much time to get about it.

Mike Neiss posted this on February 6, 2009, in Leadership.
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