Generation X and the Arts: Meet Generation X-pert Sabra Crockett (Part 2)

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Sabra L. Crockett: artist, business owner and totally GenX. Photo by Jolea Brown Anderson, Creative Photography

This week is Part Two of our Generation X-pert conversation with Sabra Crockett, owner of Sabra Lynne Decorative Painting, LLC in Louisville, KY. (You can check out Part One here). Let’s jump right back in.

GenX Manager: You spoke about giving feedback to Millennials and how you have to be mindful of how it might be received. Does it take it up a notch when you are critiquing someone’s art, something that can be so personal?

Sabra Crockett: Excellent point. I know that there are artists from all generations that really take their art so much more personally than I do. And I think it’s because of my background as a scenic artist. My art was never “my art”. It was the designer’s art. It was the director’s art. It was the audience’s art.

So I never had that preciousness with my art, and I have been able to detach myself, to an extent, from my art—and that’s important. I do recall how much more personally Millennials took feedback, and I thought maybe it was just because they were younger. But it also might be because of the encouragement that they had from their parents. “You’re wonderful! What you do is great!”

I never really had that. My parents tried to get me to move away from art, and I put my foot down. I said, “Look I’m going to be an artist. There’s nothing you can do about it. I’m going to school and I’ll figure out a way to make money.” Because they were right to be concerned about that, of course. I know as a parent I’m concerned about that as well too, to a degree.

GXM: There’s that GenX independence. Let me ask you–because I am hearing a lot of GenX influence in your story—what comes to mind for you when you think of Generation X? Did you have an affinity towards that label growing up? Do you have it now?

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“We (GenX) were labeled as slackers, negative, cynical…a little anti-establishment.”–Sabra Crockett 

SC: I do. We were labeled as slackers, negative, cynical…a little anti-establishment. But really we were pragmatic. I do have an affinity for Generation X because the people that I grew up with were so damn smart. They were so politically engaged and aware, and they cared. But it wasn’t “hippy dippy” (really we were so anti-hippy dippy). We were all about love and peace too, just with an edge.

We were very passionate about causes. I remember being in PETA at Arcadia College and getting the college to stop experimenting on mice. I remember writing letters to corporations encouraging them to end those inhumane practices. We really wanted to make a difference. We took a responsibility for our actions and our future because nobody else was going to take care of us. We got that message a lot. I felt that we really had to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and take responsibility for our futures.

GXM: What comes up for you as some of the defining moments of Generation X?

SC: I think of Kurt Cobain’s death as a defining moment. Going back, Nirvana and their influence was a defining moment. I remember it was my first year in college and we all gathered around a stereo to listen to Nirvana’s album, Nevermind and we were like, “This is amazing!” Then it instantly became mainstream, so Kurt Cobain’s death hit a generation of fans pretty hard. I think our connection with media in general; the rise of MTV for example, defines GenX.

It’s so different now—the Internet has given us so much information but it seems harder to find people that you truly connect with. I remember as a kid hanging out with friends, going to their homes. And my kids Skype or text friends. They’re hanging out too—just not in person. It’s wild.

GXM: Generation Z—the true digital natives. It’s very interesting to watch this generation come of age. They are remarkably informed, and more engaged than I remember us as teenagers. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

SC: I think they have greater potential to be more informed, than us as teenagers, because of their access to digital media, and the internet. It’s really encouraging. I feel that my son’s generation is definitely more accepting of difference than our generation was. And it’s not nearly as cliquey as when we were growing up. We kind of defined ourselves by our label. I was labeled different by others at first, and didn’t find self-acceptance until I owned the label. I considered myself a ‘freak’ or a ‘punk’ by the type of music I listened to, and the culture I surrounded myself with. It’s what we called, “Alternative”, back in the day. Even if I don’t look like it now, I still consider myself that way. The alternatives took those labels, which were something negative, and built a kind of persona around that, because we weren’t accepted by mainstream society. Now my teenage son will say, “Yeah, I’m a nerd. I’m definitely a nerd.” I’ll say, “Cool. I’m glad that you’re owning that. It’s not a negative thing.” And it’s not! It’s much more accepted to be a nerd in my son’s generation. It’s also more accepted to be gay, bi, trans… My son had a friend come out in front of his classroom in the 7th grade! That was unheard of when we were kids! I’m just so absolutely encouraged by how our children are perceiving the world, and each other.

GXM: It is pretty awesome. Let me ask you this—you’ve been a working artist for nearly two decades. What advice would you give someone just starting out?

SC: I would say if you can find a “Business for Arts” class—take it! In college, they don’t teach you about how to price your work, how to generate a client list to keep in contact with, how to balance your budget or how you do your taxes. These are all things that you need to know, because the thing is, as an artist, you are a business owner. You have to treat your art “career” as a small business. And if you can find a program that can help you market and sell your art, that’s really helpful. Most importantly, if you can find a cause that is bigger than you or your art, and your art feeds into that cause, that is where you will thrive.

It’s important to be organized and to have good planning skills. This is what non-artists may not understand. I don’t go up to a wall and just start painting. There is so much planning and effort involved. I need to have a budget and a timeline. I need to create estimates so I need to understand my fair market value. And that means I have to understand what other artists are creating and selling. I don’t think people understand that you can’t be a flake if you’re going to be a successful artist. I am so appreciative of what I do, but it’s not the fun that people think it is.

Being professional is also really important. It’s important to be on time (that’s advice for Millennials specifically). If you’re given an opportunity, show that you appreciate it by being on time and being professional. Also, communication is key. For me, I like to know that my interns are engaged in the process. So ask questions, be engaged. And listen. Listen to your clients. Listen to their concerns and desires. Be empathic.

GXM: That’s really good advice. I think you’re correct about the perception that non-artists might have about the rules of engagement. They’re really not that different. It’s work, right? Thank you so much for being our first Generation X-pert.

To check out Sabra Crockett’s work, visit www.sabralynne.com.

Are you a Generation X-pert? We’re looking to interview GenX-ers about their career paths, their experience leading employees, and how their specific industry interacts with Boomers, GenX, Millennials and more as part of a series for TheGenXManager.com. Email HeidiMarcin@gmail.com for more information.

 

Generation X and the Arts: Meet Generation X-pert Sabra Crockett

 

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Sabra L. Crockett: artist, business owner and totally GenX. Photo by Jolea Brown Anderson, Creative Photography

In this first post of our Generation X-pert series, I am pleased to introduce you to Sabra L. Crockett. Currently, Sabra is the owner of Sabra Lynne Decorative Painting, LLC in Louisville, KY, but I remember her as one of the most creative and artistic students of the Class of ’91 at Webster High School. She’s totally GenX, and I had the opportunity to pick her brain about how generations interact in the art world, giving constructive feedback to artistic Millennials and raising Gen Z kids. After spending some time reminiscing about our favorite ’80s music, we got down to business. Part One of our conversation follows, edited for clarity.

 

GenX Manager: If anyone told me that after high school I would be video conferencing with you about Generation X stuff I’d think, “Hmm..sounds right. ”. So this is great–thank you.

Let me piece together what I know about 2017 Sabra: you are an artist in Louisville, KY and have two sons?

Sabra Crockett: I do. I have two boys; a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old.

GXM: And I have a daughter that just turned 16.

SC: Teenagers!

GXM: I think what blows my mind is I remember our teen years so vividly. And when I try to explain to my daughter what it was like being a teenager in the 80s, it’s the GenX version of ‘we walked 5 miles to school in the snow uphill’ speech: “We didn’t have Hot Topic. We didn’t have Manic Panic. If you wore a band tee it’s because you were at the show and we dyed our hair with Kool-aid.”

SC: My husband kept all his band tees. I’m going to make a quilt.

GXM: And you’re GenX like me, but your parents weren’t Boomers. They were actually a bit older—the Silent Generation. How did that influence you?

SC: Yes, they grew up during the Depression. Everything was saved. Everything was an investment. Nothing was ever thrown away or wasted. You used something until you could not use it anymore. And you worked really hard and earned everything. Nothing was ever given to you freely. There always had to be some form of labor or achievement that you had to create or accomplish.

GXM: That’s really interesting. So when you were growing up, and when you were a young adult, did you feel you were different from your peers in that way?

SC. Yeah absolutely. I know a lot of my friends who just automatically got cars when they were young and were helped out a lot more by their parents. And my parents were like, “Nope”. But that sense of autonomy and self-sufficiency that I was able to have really helped me as an artist and as a self-employed person. On the other hand…it can be a hindrance in a way because I am so independent and autonomous, it can sometimes be hard to work in a group and collaborate. And I do find that working with Millennials, they really want to collaborate. But I’m like ‘OK give me a task, let me go do it now and do it right’.

GXM: So very GenX.

Let’s talk about your career—I know you are working in the arts, which is fantastic and totally what I would have expected from one of Webster High School’s Class of ’91 ‘Most Artistic’. What was your path?

SC: After high school, I really wanted to go to school at the Art Institute of Chicago. And I was accepted and I really thought I was going to go and my parents said, “We can’t afford it.” So I had to figure out where I was going to go to school in like, a week. So I went to what was then Beaver College (now Arcadia College) in Pennsylvania to study Fine Arts, but I was only there for one year. Loved Philly, but I came back home and got my Bachelor’s from RIT. Graduating early, I was ready to give up, get a “regular” job and make some money and not do art. Then I got a call from the RIT placement office about a position for a Scenic Artist at a local theater. I said, “What’s a Scenic Artist?” and they said, “We don’t know, go find out”. So I applied and I got the job. That was amazing because that was a time where I was able to use my artistic ability to actually have a job and make money.

I was there for a year. Then I moved down to Montgomery, Alabama to be a Scenic Artist at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. And that was an absolutely incredible experience. I knew nobody in Montgomery. I moved there by myself with my little kitten and my Toyota Corolla full of stuff, but no furniture.

I got there and it was amazing. There were props artisans from all over the country, really talented costume designers. I got to meet August Wilson. It was an incredible experience. Then my husband, who is also from Rochester, got a job in Montgomery and we were there for six years. And I was getting to a point with theatre where I felt like I hit a plateau and couldn’t learn a lot more. And while I was working in the theater on the weekends, I had my own little side business doing murals and faux finishes for restaurants and private homes as well as working with an antique dealer.

So when I had my son–I think it was our first year anniversary–I said ‘I think I’m going to start my own business. I think I’m going to go out and do that because I kind of need more flexibility’. And I couldn’t do theater and a side job and take care of my child. So I decided to go out on my own. And it was terrifying. But I was able to do it for a while and then we moved to Louisville, KY.

I was really lucky–I got in with the top designers. And the thing with Louisville is they love new people. It’s a very interesting city to live in. I have lived here for 14 years now and it is a culturally emerging city.

GXM: That’s my understanding too—it’s something of a hot spot right now.

SC: It’s an incredible city, and there is a lot of support for the arts. All types too– performing arts, visual arts. I’ve established great relationships and made lots of friends. I have found a home in Louisville.

GXM: What has been your experience with working with other generations in the art world—Millennials in particular? You mentioned internship programs you were involved with.

SC: Yes, I started an internship program with a local college here and worked with interns throughout my career as a scenic artist. Giving feedback has been interesting—both as a Northerner and as a GenX-er.

GXM: You’ve got kind of a brutal honesty double whammy there.

SC: Right! I had to really figure out what the Millennial value systems were and what worked well for them. And what I’ve noticed is they need a lot of encouragement, a lot of positive feedback. So if I softened my approach, I questioned if my feedback was going to be effective or taken seriously. With Millennials, I’ve had to be very patient, very encouraging, and above all—be a really good listener. I find that being a really good listener helps in all aspects of dealing with any generation. And communication is absolutely key.

I have noticed that Millennials like to text more, and I have no problem with that. I like that. In my role as gallery director for a nonprofit organization, I deal with all kinds of generations. I was working with a gentleman from the Greatest Generation who was very clear: “I don’t do email. You can either call me or you can write me a letter.” The Boomers I deal with seem to like email more.

GXM: What kind of generational issues have you observed in the art world, and as an artist yourself? Are there keen differences?

SC: Boomers seem to equate art with status. For a lot of Boomers working to establish themselves, having a big house and a fancy car, was very important. And most of my clients that I work with in private homes–doing murals and finishes—tend to be from that generation. So for them, it’s a status symbol—a beautiful work of art they can show off to friends.

Millennials, not so much. For them, I think it’s more about individuality. And I can appreciate that as a GenX-er, because we value our individuality as well.

Tune in next week for Part 2 of my conversation with Sabra and get her take on GenX’s defining moments, what it’s like to be a GenX artist, business owner and mother, and what advice she has for people who want to have a career in art. Catch the exciting conclusion right here!

Two for one: Matching Millennial Workers with GenX Mentors

An earlier post on TheGenXManager.com mentioned mentoring as a way to further engage Generation X employees. For organizations looking to cultivate a leadership mindset in mid-level GenX managers—and pass on valuable skills to younger and newer employees—pairing Millennial employees with GenX mentors is a way to accomplish both in one fell swoop.

Piece of cake, right? Not so fast. Though GenX and Millennials may be generation-adjacent, they are in fact very different when it comes to their approach to work. But that’s the idea. Pairing GenX mentors with Millennials matches the complementary skill sets of both generations so that each benefits.

What a GenX Mentor Can Teachboard-784349_640

GenX employees have decades of career experience in a corporate culture that has undergone massive transformation in a relatively short amount of time. They’ve seen things. This experience, combined with GenX attributes like pragmatism, loyalty, and independence are strengths that younger generations can benefit from. Here are just a few things Millennial employees can learn from GenX mentors:

  • Pragmatism. One of the traits that GenX-ers are most known for is their ability to realistically accomplish goals. They understand that compromise is often necessary to move things forward, and thus many GenXers seek middle ground willingly in the name of progress. Millennials, who are more idealistic (much like their Boomer parents), may be more hesitant to move toward a goal if conditions don’t seem favorable. GenX mentors can teach their mentees how to analyze existing systems and frameworks, negotiate with stakeholders and get things done.
  • Self Reliance. Often called the least-protected generation, GenX knew early on they’d have to figure out a lot for themselves. This trait has served GenX employees well. They are known for working well independently and seeking to expand their skill sets. For Millennials accustomed to group work and collaboration, they can learn from their GenX mentors how to be more self-starting and confident in their solo work.
  • Workplace culture. For employees in their early careers, getting a sense of organizational culture and politics can be a steep learning curve. A mentor who has a strong sense of culture can guide their mentee and shorten the learning process.

What a GenX Mentor Can Learn

Mentoring is viewed as a strong engagement tool because in an ideal arrangement, everyone benefits. As trust is built on both sides of the mentoring relationship, it can evolve into more of a mutual coaching model. GenX mentors stand to learn a lot from their Millennial mentees, such as:

  • Optimism. Negative and cynical are two terms often associated with Generation X. Yet Millennials—the same generation that’s facing down crushing student loan debt and shaky job prospects– are the most optimistic of the generations and they take that with them into the workplace. They believe in positive change, and that they can have a direct impact on bringing it about.
  • Self-advocacy. Millennials are quite known for their ability to advocate for themselves, and they can show GenX a thing or two in this regard. Studies show that GenX values recognition just as much as other Millennials, but they may not be actively seeking it.
  • Good ideas can come from anyone. Hierarchy is not important to Millennials. (That can be a sword that cuts both ways.) Raised to value collaboration and teamwork, Millennials believe that ideas are equal regardless of the source and that everyone is a major stakeholder.

Each generation has unique strengths and skills. Mentoring can facilitate the sharing of these in a way that rewards all involved, including the organization that supports it.

Readers: Does your organization have a mentoring program? What has been your experience with mentoring in your career? Share in the comments below.

Living on the edge: Xennials and others

 

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When it comes to generations, it’s not always a perfect fit.

As both a language lover and marketing professional, I love when a new made-up word takes hold. Last month, there was huge media coverage of the term “Xennial”–coined to describe those late GenXers/early Millennials whose unique experiences make them feel like they don’t belong in either generation.

 

The portmanteau originally appeared in a piece by Sarah Standkorb and Jed Oelbaum for GOOD magazine in 2014. The term caught fire again recently when University of Melbourne professor Dan Woodman, in an interview with Mamamia.com, explained the concept of this microgeneration:

“The idea is there’s this micro or in-between generation between the Gen X group – who we think of as the depressed flannelette-shirt-wearing, grunge-listening children that came after the Baby Boomers, and the Millennials – who get described as optimistic, tech savvy and maybe a little bit too sure of themselves and too confident.”

The Xennial Experience

A common phrase I hear from a lot of Millennials is, “Yeah, but I’m not really a Millennial…” It’s usually an attempt to distance themselves from negative Millennial stereotypes, but sometimes it is in reference to their Xennial experience which blends characteristics from both GenX and Millennial generations. A Xennial:

  • Was born during the original Star Wars trilogy.
  • Had a computer-free childhood but a tech-connected adolescence.
  • Played more Oregon Trail than PacMan.
  • Watched more “My So Called Life” than music videos on MTV.

The concept behind this is not unique to this sub-segment of those on the Generation X/Millennial cusp. When generations span 15-20 years (depending on who is counting), the shared experiences and defining moments of a generation look really different depending on which end of the spectrum you fall. If you are on the cusp of two generations, you might technically belong to a generation because of your birth year, but attitudinally identify with a different generation altogether. Let’s apply the “Xennial” model to other generations.

Baby Boomers –Generation X = BooXers  

No, I don’t really think “BooXers” is going to catch on. But I have hope, as there happen to be a lot of these folks who are on the cusp of the Baby Boomer generation (1946-64) and Generation X (1965-1980). A BooXer:

  • Was alive for the moon landing but vividly remembers the Challenger disaster.
  • Considers “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” their coming-of-age movie over “The Breakfast Club”.
  • Wasn’t quite sure how old they needed to be to buy beer, as the drinking age was a moving target.
  • Started their gaming experience with pinball and ended it with Atari.

Millennials – Generation Z = GenZennials

It might be harder to predict where the “cuspers” of Millennials (1981-2000) and Generation Z (2001-present) will fall on the spectrum as Generation Z is still coming of age. But even now, we can observe how early GenZ is distinguishing themselves from their Millennial counterparts. In fact, they seem to be more like their GenX parents. A GenZennial:

  • Works on group projects at school but hates every second of it.
  • Is a true digital native, and can process information quicker than Millennials but has a shorter attention span.
  • Watches more YouTube than television.
  • Knows enough about the Millennial student debt crisis to know they want no part of it, even if that means skipping college.

For someone who was born at the midpoint of her generation (1973) and happens to (still) fit every GenX stereotype, this fascinates me. It’s further proof that there is so much more to a generation than a collection of birth years. The defining moments and shared experiences are the things that so strongly influence us.

Three things Boomers can teach GenX and Millennials at work

Decades ago, there were dire warnings about the crisis that would be caused by Baby Boomers retiring en masse. The crisis was averted, thanks in no small part to another crisis called the Great Recession. Today, nearly one-third of Boomers are still working. That’s actually good news for GenX and Millennials. As Baby Boomers continue to exit the workforce, albeit at a slower rate than predicted, younger generations can take advantage of the access they have to these seasoned employees to build on their own skills. Here are three things younger generations can learn from their Boomer colleagues:

The Value of Competition

Baby Boomers were called the “me generation” for a reason. The sheer size of the cohort dictated a high level of competition that Boomers grew accustomed to and that they expressed in the workplace. Today, competition gets something of a bad rap as the pendulum swings in favor of a more team-oriented and collaborative approach to work. But competition is a motivator, and Boomers know it.

Competition became less important as Generation X came of age. They were a smaller population, so there wasn’t the same natural competition that exists in a larger group. GenX also had an independent, self-reliant streak that made them less concerned with what others were doing and more focused their own things.

For Millennials, teamwork and cooperation were valued over competition, hence the “everyone-gets-a-trophy” stereotype. Competition became viewed as something negative. But framed correctly, competition can be a strong and positive motivator.

Competition fuels innovation. It can drive employees to think strategically, develop creative solutions to problems and increase productivity.

Soft Skills

shutterstock_589025801Punctuality. Professionalism. Business etiquette. Networking. Boomers who have spent decades in the workplace expect these things. But as organizations have become more reliant on technology, “people skills” seem less relevant. To younger generations, they seem downright antiquated.

Not so. Soft skills continue to be in high demand. How important are soft skills? A recent McKinsey study reported that 40% of companies are struggling to fill jobs because younger workers lack soft skills. Employers know that hard skills on their own are not enough for employees to be successful. For younger generations, making an effort to develop soft skills can make a big impact on future career success.

Institutional Knowledge

According to a 2016 Gallup report, 21% of Millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year, which is more than three times the number of non-Millennials who report the same. At the other end of the spectrum, a separate 2016 poll showed that 40% of Baby Boomers have been with their employer for more than 20 years, and of those, 18% have been with their company at least 30 years.

Workplaces evolve, of course. But having a sense of organizational history, operational knowledge and key relationships is a huge advantage as companies look to the future. Expertise is expensive, and many savvy organizations have well-developed strategies for transferring the knowledge of employees getting ready to retire to the next generation of workers. For younger employees, gaining that institutional knowledge can mean having a hand in ensuring the future success of the organization.

The diversity of skills and experience in the workforce today spans five generations. From the Traditionalists to Generation Z and everything in between, each generation has unique strengths that others can learn from. Creating an environment that encourages close collaboration and mentoring across and among the different generations is a way that ensures that those strengths are maximized.

 

 

Management in Action: The Power of No

no-1532826_640In my current job, I have a saying: “We’ll never run out of ideas.” I work with a lot of very bright, creative people and while I really believe this to be the case, it’s also my code for “we can’t possibly implement every idea.”

Nor should we. Saying yes to everything can threaten a core mission and stalls innovation. Steve Jobs hit the nail on the head in 1997:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

For employees who are early to mid-career, saying no to work can feel pretty daunting. But did you know that saying no for the right reasons and in the right way could actually be good for your career? Here are three good reasons to say no at work:

It’s not strategic.

Does the work that’s being asked of you align with your organization’s strategic priorities? If your organization has a plan that clearly lays out the direction of the organization–along with initiatives, tactics and goals that support it –it’s pretty easy to answer the question. If you’ve done a quick check against the plan and the work does not appear to align, that’s a good reason to say no. Chances are you have work that unquestionably DOES align and support the plan, and taking on work that doesn’t endangers those projects.

If your organization lacks such plan, it makes determining strategic value of work much harder. (Real talk: it makes everything much harder. If your place doesn’t have a plan, become the champion for creating a plan. More on that in a future post.)

There are capacity issues.

Time, personal bandwidth and money are finite resources in the workplace, and it seems like we’re often asked to do more with less. These very real constraints mean that not everything can be a “yes”—even super awesome, totally strategic initiatives. Capacity issues can be addressed in a few ways:

  • Adding capacity: overtime, outsourcing, new hire
  • Reprioritization: projects are rescheduled or deferred
  • Project size/scope reduction: scaling down in order to free up resources

If you or your team is at full capacity and none of the above are workable solutions, yes is impossible.

It’s not your area of expertise.

Many of us want to be seen as team players at work and want to come through for the people counting on us. But if you are not the right person for the type work that’s being requested and your lack of expertise can put quality at risk, you should pass.

That’s not to say you should never step out of you comfort zone and learn new skills. If you have the opportunity to gain new experience and the work allows for a learning curve, by all means go for it. Absent of that, it’s best to recommend an alternative.

The Art of Saying No

Now that you’ve got some solid reasons for saying no at work, here are some tips on how to do it in a way that doesn’t risk your reputation:

  • Be gracious. There is a difference between saying no and telling someone to go pound salt. Someone has come to you because they think you are the best person to help accomplish a goal. Acknowledge that.
  • Be a pro. If you are unable to take on the work, be honest and straightforward about the reasons why. Many communication experts recommend communicating in person instead of email to avoid confusion and have some clear dialog.
  • Be open to a compromise. Many times “no” actually means “not now”. Is there middle ground to be had? Can capacity issues be overcome? Getting to the heart of the issue can lead to a solution that is acceptable to all.
  • Be realistic. If you work in a heavy command-and-control environment, it’s not always possible to say no. Choose wisely. Help your leaders understand the barriers that are preventing you from saying yes and be ready with solutions.

In discussing the premise for this post, a fellow GenX Manager pointed out how saying yes actually helps with saying no. He had this to say:

“If you say no for good and solid reasons at the same time you’re doing everything you can to support the requests that you can say yes to quickly, effectively, and professionally, things are a lot easier.  When you’ve demonstrated that you will say ‘yes’ whenever you can and will do your best to help someone out, it is a lot more likely that they will believe and accept your ‘no’”.

Yes.

The Management in Action series covers a variety of practical management topics that can help GenX managers strengthen their leadership skills. Got a topic you’d like to see explored? Leave a suggestion in the comments. 

The Birthday Edition: A GenX–er at Midlife

On July 8, 2017, I turn 44 years old. No big deal.

When I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought I’d freak out about turning 40. I did but in a good way. I loved it. My 30s were hard—I spent that decade raising a young child, building my own career, supporting a husband through a job loss, grad school and a career change. As the chaos calmed, turning 40 felt like I could finally look to the future. Who knew that four years later, in my work with this blog, I’d be examining the past?

I was born in 1973, pretty much the mid-point of Generation X. I remember how our generation was described—slackers, cynical, angry even—and thinking, yes, that is exactly how I feel. I didn’t think we were getting a bad rap at the time. To me, it was pretty dead on.

In the time that I have been really diving deep into generational issues, I have learned it takes more than a date range to bring a generation together. It takes shared experiences or what many call “defining moments”. My own analysis is that these moments—positive or negative—fundamentally challenge a belief or change a worldview. For many Baby Boomers, the assassination of JFK is their defining moment. For most Millennials, it’s September 11, 2001.

Like most generations, GenX has many defining moments. Here are the top three that most resonate with me: 

Challenger Disaster

challengerBy 1986, space travel was pretty well established. What made the space shuttle Challenger’s 10th mission particularly interesting at the time was the fact that Christa McAullife, a New Hampshire Social Studies teacher, would be joining the crew. It was to be the first time an ordinary citizen would join professional astronauts on a mission to space, opening our imaginations to the possibility of space travel for “regular people”. Seventy-three seconds after blastoff, the shuttle exploded, killing everyone aboard.

For the many GenX-ers who watched it live, it was difficult for us to wrap our minds around what we had just witnessed. I remember shocked teachers struggling to understand and explain, trying to process their own emotions while protecting those of their students as a piece of innocence was lost.

MTV

mtvNot every defining moment is a tragedy. In 1981 MTV played The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” and everything changed. Created as an idea to reach teenagers as the largest group of consumers of music and to re-engage them with television as a medium (there was very little dedicated programming for that demographic). MTV fused music with visual storytelling and gave us access to the artists that we loved and exposed us to new ones, 24/7.

My family didn’t have cable in 1981, but when we got it a few years later, I was hooked. As a young person obsessed with music, if I was watching television, I was watching MTV.

And I wasn’t the only one. Pop culture, news and even political programming began showing up on MTV, aimed at reaching teens and young adults. In my teens and early 20s, my most trusted news sources were Kurt Loder and Tabitha Soren. (MTV actually had a Peabody award-winning news department).

Never do I feel as old as I do when I turn on MTV today. Yes, I’ll watch Teen Mom OG with my daughter because she got me totally hooked, but I forget it’s the same network. For straight up music videos you have to seek out their sister stations, such as MTV2 or MTV (gulp) Classic.

Fall of the Berlin Wall

berlinwall_0On November 9, 1989, the government of East Germany announced that its citizens could freely visit West Germany, meaning that the wall that had been separating West Berlin from communist East Berlin was no longer necessary. That weekend, citizens from both sides of the wall came together to celebrate and to start tearing down the Berlin Wall.

I remember the date because I had a poster of the wall coming down hanging in my teenage bedroom. (So much for the Brat Pack for me I guess.) I also remember it because tense U.S./Soviet relations were a big part of my childhood. True, by the 80s we weren’t doing under-the-desk drills in school anymore, but I did understand that mutually assured destruction was just about the only thing keeping us from nuclear war. That’s pretty scary for a kid. So in 1989, at age 16, I thought maybe that’s something I didn’t have to worry about any more. Today, it feels downright nostalgic.

And so as I mark another successful trip around the sun, I wonder what the defining moments will be for subsequent generations. YouTube? An Obama presidency? A Trump presidency? Time will tell.

GenX-ers: What do you consider to be our defining moments? Boomers and Millennials, what about you? Reply in the comments.

 

Three ways to increase engagement for GenX employees

As I wrote in a previous post, increasing employee engagement continues to be something of a holy grail for most organizations. And it’s no wonder—companies with high employee engagement levels outperform those with lower engagement in productivity, sales and profitability.

generation-xLike most things related to Generation X, engagement rates among GenX workers remain hopelessly stuck in the middle between Baby Boomers (most engaged) and Millennials (least engaged). With Generation X, organizational leaders have an opportunity to really move the needle. Here are three ways to increase engagement among your Generation X employees:

Autonomy

Want to really engage employees? Leave them alone. Though it sounds like a contradiction, giving employees control over their work is a huge motivator. In a study by Cornell University, businesses that gave employees autonomy experienced four times the growth with just one-third the turnover as businesses using command and control management.

This is something that pragmatic, self-sufficient GenX-ers can really respond to. Most GenX-ers are now mid-career and have enough experience to know how to manage their work in a way that adds value to their organization and lets them feel personally successful and fulfilled. So let them.

Mentoring

Mentoring, or pairing early career employees with more seasoned workers, can be a very powerful engagement tool. For mid-career GenX-ers, participating in mentorship as either a mentor or mentee can reap huge benefits—both for the employee and the organization. Getting tapped to mentor a less experienced employee shows that an employee’s specific strengths are so valued that the organization wants to imbue others with those attributes. And because good mentoring goes far beyond mere knowledge transfer, many mentors find themselves recommitting to their organizations as they coach and support their mentees.

For many GenX-ers, being a mentee can be equally fulfilling. Having a trusted advisor to turn to for advice and guidance—especially as GenX employees navigate leadership transitions—makes employees feel valued and supported. Encouraging GenX employees to find mentors outside of their organization and to grow their professional network helps them gain “big picture” perspective and foster strategic thinking—crucial as mid-level employees move up the ranks.

Leadership Development

While many use the terms “management” and “leadership” interchangeably (and they are most certainly linked), they are really two different things. Management is often task-focused and work-oriented whereas leadership is people-focused and strategic. Peter Drucker, the godfather of modern management, defined leadership as to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

Professional advancement is important to GenX workers. Boomers are not retiring at previously projected rates, and many GenX employees feel stuck in middle management roles. Investing in leadership development for key employees sends a message that they are seen as the future of an organization and that their time is coming.

How is it that autonomy, mentoring and leadership development all increase employee engagement? All three are examples of trust. Giving people autonomy means you trust their expertise, their judgment and their ability to control how their work gets done. Encouraging seasoned managers to take newer employees under their wing or pairing managers with an additional advisor acknowledges you trust their current abilities and their potential. Investing in the development of leadership skills and traits means you trust them with the future.

These are just three ways to increase engagement for GenX managers. What else have you seen work? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

More Millennial Misunderstandings

Raise your hand if you’re sick of hearing about Millennials. Scrutinizing this generation, from their tech habits, work style and buying power to their social attitudes and politics has become something of a national pastime. Are they really such strange creatures?

notebook-1064660_1920Millennials themselves will be the first ones to tell you they aren’t. It’s easy to scratch the surface and use words like “entitled”, “lazy”, “narcissistic”, etc. without thinking about the world today and its influence—or what might be really driving behavior. So before you read another article about how Millennials are so different, consider some of these Millennial stereotypes:

Looks like: Laziness
Really is: Seeking Flexibility

Perhaps more than any generation before them, Millennials are challenging traditional workplace rules. For the generation who grew up with technology, the line between “work” and “life” has always been blurred. To them, work is that which gets done—it’s not a geographic location or a specific time. They’re looking for organizations that support flexible work schedules, remote offices and technology use because that’s what they are accustomed to. For Millennials, these aren’t perks, they’re expectations.

The modern workplace is responding. Many organizations are adopting a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE model) in which employees are given high levels of flexibility and autonomy and employee performance is measured entirely on delivered results. In ROWE organizations, employees work when they want, where they want, and how they want. The ROWE model is fairly new and still evolving, and to do it successfully an organization needs to have a pretty kick-butt performance measurement process.

Looks like: Entitlement
Really is: Desire to Assimilate

I once worked on a team of very high performers, and as such, we were afforded a lot of freedom and autonomy over our schedules. Some of us started early to get out by 4 pm, others came in later to get kids on the bus, some of us took long lunches to exercise. It was understood that we were all in the office during core hours and would do what it took to get the work done.

When we brought a new college grad on to our team, she too started getting very flexible with her schedule right away. Entitled Millennial! was the outcry. Not so. No one told her that the level of flexibility we had was earned through good performance over time. She was just trying to fit in on the team. (PS—she was a rock star and got to our level very quickly.)

Looks like: Neediness
Really is: Collaborative Spirit

To pragmatic and self-sufficient GenX managers, it can look like Millennials struggle to work independently. Many Millennials want a much higher level of feedback than GenX-ers and Boomers are used to. Millennials came of age during a convergence of helicopter parenting styles and technology, and had strong feedback loops for nearly every aspect of their lives.

Raised in an era of team sports and activities, group projects and near-constant online connection reinforced the message to Millennials that collaboration was the best way to achieve a goal. They are used to group brainstorming, consensus building and team culture. For this generation, “teamwork makes the dream work” is how things get done.

We GenX-ers can relate to unfair characterization—remember we were labeled cynical, disengaged slackers. Looking back now, we were doing what every emerging generation did before us and what Millennials are doing now: simply reacting to the world around us (while confounding the generations who came before).

Stop Your Messing Around: Generation X and Money

In the Fall of 2016, Fidelity Investments launched an ad campaign about retirement planning using “A Message to You, Rudy” by The Specials for the music. I remember, because when I saw the commercial my jaw dropped. They’re using a ska band to talk about retirement, I thought. Ska. And retirement.

Even if you didn’t have The Specials on vinyl as a teenager (of course I did), a GenX-er can probably identify that familiar rocksteady horn line as at least a song from the 80s if not “A Message to You, Rudy”. Yep. No question as to the target market for this ad.

Me. Us. Generation X.

As a marketer, I thought it was savvy and successful. As a GenX-er I died a little inside. Growing up in the 80s, I remember ska being popular but certainly not mainstream. It was a close cousin to punk and had something of a dark reputation because of its association with Skinhead subculture. Ska was rebellious and different. Of course GenX loved it.

The thing is, the commercial worked on me. After getting over the shock of hearing edgy 80s music in a retirement commercial, reality set in. Yeah. I should be thinking more about retirement. Welcome to mid-life, Generation X.

Generation X’s relationship with money, generationally speaking, is…complicated. We’re the poster children for economic uncertainty.

time-1558037_640Generation X and debt

We might be the middle children of the workplace, but there’s one area where GenX comes out on top: debt. That’s right: among the three major generations, GenX carries the most debt. Overall, this debt includes everything from student loans and home mortgages to car loans and medical bills, but GenX also has the highest credit card debt of any generation. According to research by Experian, GenX-ers’ average credit card debt is $6,752, about $1,100 more than Baby Boomers and $3,300 more than Millennials.

The Sandwich Generation

GenX is definitely feeling the pinch of competing financial priorities as many care for both their children and aging parents. Managing day-to-day expenses and saving for their children’s educations while still potentially paying down their own student loan debt doesn’t leave a lot left over. It shows: GenX has the least amount of money in savings. The median amount of emergency cash among GenX-ers is $5,000. Financial experts recommend having six months of living expenses on hand for emergencies.

Retirement

Here’s where things get really ugly for Generation X. At about the time GenX-ers entered the workforce, many organizations began moving away from traditional pension retirement plans and toward defined contribution plans like 401(k)s. While participation rates in those plans are high among GenX, a couple of recessions—including a Great One—have done a number on GenX’s retirement funds. According to a study done by Pew Charitable trusts, GenX-ers lost nearly half of their wealth from 2007-2010, an average of about $33,000—more than any other generation.

But don’t count out good old-fashioned GenX pragmatism. In a Transamerica survey from 2016, 55% of GenX-ers believe they’ll work beyond age 65, and most plan to do some form of work during their retirement years. More than half expect their standard of living to decrease in retirement. We’re nothing if not realistic.

So take heed, my GenX brethren. “Stop your messing around. Better think of your future.” I’d love to know how many GenX-ers contacted their financial advisor after that campaign.