If you are a leader who is over 45 years old do you believe that others must “pay their dues” before becoming eligible for a senior role? Must the younger generation move up the corporate ladder in much the same fashion that you did? Is the price of admission into the upper echelon many stepping stones with a steady ascent and years of very long hours and plenty of time spent carrying other people’s water? Then you must be really pissed about the brashness of these younger people and the changing norms for getting ahead.
I’m not going to comment on the traits…for good or bad…of the 20-40 somethings and how there is a sharp contrast with the outlook of many older people. Instead I want to focus on how the world has changed and how that necessitates the need for change in the work environment. Paying dues may be as antiquated as a Palm Pilot.
This is a short list of workplace norms that are still alive in many major companies around the globe.
- Flattened though they may be, most organizational structures are still hierarchical. There is a clearly defined path for moving up and very few people are allowed to skip a grade. If there are no seats available at the next level up you may be encouraged to take a lateral move to build your portfolio…so that you are more prepared for a promotion. Today’s version of paying dues.
- Performance management and succession planning processes are quite disciplined. Several times a year you are assessed on how well you are doing and once a year your name is tossed around by senior executives to determine your “readiness” for moving up. Unless you have a highly specialized and valuable skill that is critical to the bottom line you can hang around in the pool of “ready now” folks for awhile. There may or may not be an opportunity for you but everyone is crossing their fingers that you will stick around…that you will be okay paying more dues.
- When you reach your boiling point and don’t want to wait any longer (which could be 9 months or 3 years) and you threaten to leave there will be a flurry of behind the scenes conversations. Your boss will talk with the CEO and the head of HR and think out loud about your real value to the company and if they can afford to have you leave. If those three people came up through the ranks and paid their dues they may trash you for being such a whippersnapper. If they decide they need to retain you the conversation shifts to not wanting to set a precedent for others to storm the gates.
- If you are under 40 and promoted into an executive role things could be tough. Your older peers may struggle to accept you as an equal, you will feel insecure and staff will wonder what is so special about you. You will find it far more challenging than you imagine to establish a style that garners respect and gravitas. You are more likely to vacillate between being overly self confident and anxious. If you repeat “I’m the youngest executive on the team” frequently this will not help your case. You are telegraphing that you may not have paid all your dues.
- Even in organizations that claim to be more fluid, less hierarchical, more willing to abandon strict guidelines there will be few exceptions to the rule. There is a gap between stated desires and actual habits. Paying dues remains the norm.
The question that must be asked is: Do these 20th century practices work in the 21st century economy? I think the generation gap is less about the human players and more about the structure of the workplace. And in spite of the cool tech company cultures (Facebook, Google etc) most corporations are still very old school. I would even say that the tech companies aren’t as different as they appear. They may have more relaxed dress codes and ping pong tables but there are still some dues to pay.
I don’t have all the answers about what parts to dismantle and what to build instead. But this is what I challenge about the current system.
- Long hours are crazy. Yes, work is done around the clock because of globalization but that doesn’t mean that people have to work an endless amount of hours. Long hours used to be part of paying your dues and that is still true in some cases. But doesn’t it feel like how things were a century ago before labor laws? Just because it’s a white collar job doesn’t make it right. There is more research every day about the negative impact on individuals, families, companies and societies because of grueling hours at work.
- The number one job satisfier in survey after survey is interesting and stimulating work that allows for growth and learning. Why doesn’t that form the basis of how we structure the workplace? Yes, there are job rotations and development programs that try to get at this. And yes, jobs can’t have the boring designed out them entirely. But there’s got to be a better way to meet the needs of a highly educated and motivated workforce that will benefit the individual and the company.
- There need to be more creative ways to think about compensation. Again, surveys say that money is lower down on the list of job motivators…except for people that flock to Wall Street. There is still too much “throw some money at it” to solve talent retention issues. Money is important and people should be well compensated but there are others things that matter in today’s workforce and they should be included in how we think about compensation (ie. family considerations, more vacation time, philanthropic activities). But rethinking this means taking on the sacred cow of outrageous CEO comp. I’ve worked with many CEOs and I don’t buy that they should be paid so exponentially more because of the nature of that role.
- Specialized expertise is required in today’s economy but our org structures don’t have a good way of managing that. We used to call these experts “individual contributors” which is just code for a-wonk-who-should-never-ever-manage-others. These are the mad scientists who are a blessing and a curse to executives. We need more of these people and we can’t put them all off in the corners with the potted plants.
- More work today is achieved through project teams but the guidelines for compensation and multiple reporting lines and ownership are a mess. In spite of the acceptance of teamwork in most work environments the practices around recognition and accountability are complicated and uninspired. There are still lots of 1980’s processes that are tweaked for today. Not good enough.
I have long been frustrated that work environments today don’t look wildly different than they did 50-60 years ago in spite of the fact that the world has changed so dramatically. With women in the workforce, globalization and technology you would think that collectively we would be clever enough to reinvent how we work. Instead it seems that work has just expanded. We need to stop thinking in terms of paying dues and think more about turning it on its head.