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Millennials are taking over the world. Sound familiar? This sure seems to be a hot discussion topic. Everyone is attempting to understand the needs and wants of Generation Y. This is perhaps driven by a surge of worry from baby boomers and those of us from Generation X who see the unprecedented speed of change.
"Those kids seem so entitled."
"No one mapped out my career path; they need to take some personal risk."
"They are so restless. Nothing goes fast enough for them."
These are all things I've recently heard in boardrooms when the subject came up. It is, of course, fair to discuss the generational difference the new business world is experiencing. But should we be worried? Absolutely not. What we shouldn't do is ignore the opportunity it brings.
It can be easy to point at conflicts that a so-called generational divide produces. But is it really a divide? I prefer to see the possibilities of alignment.
Let's think about it. What makes a good leader? In my experience, one vital quality is that a leader seeks knowledge, learning and experience. They also create an environment of learning and opportunity for others. They are interested in making an impact. Is that age specific? I don't think so.
When I first started my career at ING Direct, I was quite young. I had various roles along the way. Some were very much aligned with my technical skills and competencies and some were quite a stretch. On many occasions, I hired colleagues older than I was, who had more experience than I did, and had stronger subject matter expertise. It forced us to collaborate, to share information, to look around the table and find the opportunities for alignment.
When I became the chief executive officer of ING Direct, I was 39 years old and my first objective was to ensure that I built an inclusive and open environment. Transparency allows us to acknowledge the age difference, to be open and honest, to share information liberally and to empathize with others. Dwelling on age differences, however, won't get anyone anywhere.
When I was in my 20s, I wanted to be credible. I was told trivial things like not to wear cufflinks until I was in my 30s. Until recently, I was often the youngest guy at the table, so I've always needed to deal with the age gap. If you ask me, it's all rather silly, frankly. Generational gaps won't disappear. Millennials will one day feel pressured by the next generation to adapt, and that will be a similar test of their leadership.
But, experience does matter. And yes, you do accumulate more experience with time. I turned 45 recently. I have gathered many experiences and learned many lessons and have many more to accumulate. Being young does not disqualify you from performing well. But young leaders should focus on gaining experiences.
"The only source of knowledge is experience," Albert Einstein said, so put your hand up whenever possible, don't be afraid to take risks, and be attuned to who you are. People who do that accumulate emotional intelligence and bring great perspective – regardless of their age. Conversely, older leaders must foster communication, openness and acceptance, and focus on listening and working through the differences to find the alignment among all generations.
The year of birth may define the group but it does not define the individual. We each bring to our jobs unique work and life experiences, and it would serve us better to pay attention to the individual and not judge the generation they belong to. Age itself doesn't matter. Instead, strive for continuous learning for yourself and those around you. And consider this great thought from the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch: "Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted. And experience is often the most valuable thing you have to offer."