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Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

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Cross-Generational Perspective on Succession Planning-Part Two

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Cross-Generational Perspective on Succession Planning – Part Two

The longer firms/organizations put off serious preparation for the next generation to step into the big Boomer shoes the greater the danger. The breather many organizations have allowed themselves during the past recession will leave them gasping for air. Succession planning and preparation is needed at all times. Anyone whose expertise and contacts will be missed can cause a serious business disruption and loss of clients/customers and other stakeholder relationships if quality transitions are not in the works. Part One of this topic focused on Boomers and Gen Y/Millennials.

Open Gen X Bottlenecks with Transitioning Incentives to Boomers

Boomers who put their plans for "re-careering" on the shelf during the recession to hold on to what they have are expected to leave current positions for new career destinations. I am not in favor of involuntarily removing productive people. However, for the sake of providing opportunities to the generation waiting in line, senior workers’ roles and responsibilities need to shift at some point.

For now the trick is to capitalize on Boomer knowledge and experience without alienating the bottlenecked Gen Xers. One answer is to pay Boomers still in place now to transition their valuable acquired wisdom, contacts and skills before they up and leave with these precious assets or fail to pass on the baton and client/customer relationships. That will prepare Gen Xers to thrive when the bottleneck opens, as it eventually will.

Transitioning to Gen X Leaders

What are the potential strengths and liabilities of first phase Generation X prospective leaders (born approximately 1962-71) who are next in line? (Note: The younger part of the Gen X cohort differs from the older half as they were influenced by different formative events and circumstances.)  Many of the older Xers had been left to fend for themselves or faced the job search hardships of the late 1980s recession. They are hard working and resourceful. Their skepticism and distrust of institutions made them resilient and gave them strong survival skills. It’s also given them the ability to develop many options. They are more globally aware than Boomers, and have a somewhat better appreciation of women in authority roles in general. They are faster than Boomers when it comes to adapting to new technology. Other strengths include adaptability and openness to challenge and variety.

On the other hand, they do have certain liabilities as managers including impatience, typically poorer people skills than Boomers and occasional cynicism. These attributes frequently surface in their roles as supervisors and mentors of the younger Gen Y/Millennials and can lead to potential clash between Generation X and Generation Y. Gen Xers tend to like to work autonomously and are proud of their independent resourcefulness. Gen Yers, by way of contrast, like working in teams, collaborating, and want and need a lot of management guidance. They ask a lot of questions upfront because that is what they were educated to do, and they want to feel secure that they will do things right and garner praise. Gen X finds this demand for continual attention frustrating, even annoying, and considers Gen Y to be coddled and over-protected.

It’s likely Gen X leaders will be substantially different from the older half of the Boomer cohort leaders who have generally been in charge until recently. Those two generations are typically different from each other. And the fast-changing circumstances require different styles and responses.

Transitioning the Culture with Gen X Taking the Lead

One firm example: At Cravath, Swaine & Moore, perhaps the best known and historically conservative "white shoe' law firm, no revolution has been necessary to pass the baton. Increasingly since 2000, a new group of partners in their late-30s and their 40s (Gen X) have decided to stop waiting to be called.

They are building new relationships and taking on work and client management that historically was handled by partners in their 50s and 60s. Abandoning the deferential culture of forwarding deals up the seniority line, the Gen X partners wanted to work on those deals themselves now and not wait. They have gone after the clients and kept them. Unlike the situation in some firms, most Cravath senior partners haven’t minded, and they nurture the new environment.

Why? For one thing, their compensation is not affected given the lockstep system which reaches a peak when the partners are somewhere in their 50s and then declines as they continue to age. The younger partners' more aggressive style means they get to make a name for themselves at an earlier age - and the older partners continue to thrive with less burden. This is essential to motivate transitioning. The Baby Boomers generally are happy to ease up somewhat. They also think that the younger guys should be working with their younger banker peers.

Many senior partners didn't want to do hostile takeovers, but the younger partners were happy to jump into the fray. The results so far indicate it's working out for everyone: the partners, the team and the clients. The firm has gotten more marquee deals and the Gen X partners are getting their chance to shine without knocking the Boomers out of the way.

While this model won’t work for all industries or even all law firms, it may be worthwhile to think about how variations could be adapted and start creating changed expectations.

Are They Ready?

With the demographic phenomenon of a small Generation X cohort, firms are faced with a situation in which much of the next generation is either unwilling to sacrifice personal life or may not be suitably trained to take over the demanding responsibilities of leading their businesses to the productivity standards the Boomers sought and achieved.

If your organization fails to implement succession strategies now, you may well find yourself with a leadership gap in just a few years that will be filled by Gen Y/Millennials with a lot less experience and a work style and mindset that is still a puzzlement to many older colleagues. What will start as an internal problem can soon escalate to a service delivery problem. 

To achieve buy-in and success, it is extremely important to align succession planning with institutional strategy and involve all the generations in planning and transitions. Are you and your organization ready?

© Phyllis Weiss Haserot, 2014. All rights reserved.

Note: This article contains excerpts from Chapter 34 of The Rainmaking Machine by Phyllis Weiss Haserot (Thomson Reuters, 2014 edition.)