The trouble with the young is their focus on profit

Generation gaps have not disappeared, they've just moved to the board room. Robert Nurden reports on a way to bridge them
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The Independent Online
Breakdown in communication between managers is often due to the generation gap, according to new research. Younger managers tend to concentrate on profitability and exponential expansion while their seniors put more store by the culture of the organisation and organic growth.

The divide can cause unresolved differences of opinion at meetings, with ambitious 30-year-old executives becoming impatient at any reference to the company's "traditional way of doing things".

The solution, according to Gene Horan, inventor of a study programme called Timeline Leadership, is for each type of manager to be aware of the other's mind set and to adopt a different focus.

"It is natural for younger managers to concentrate very much on their day-to-day job requirements, mindful of what the future might bring. But for senior level management the focus is different," said Mr Horan. "For them, vision is absolutely necessary but the past also needs to be front of mind - appreciating where an organisation has come from is a powerful tool in making the vision a reality.

"Inability to appreciate staff or bosses' past, present or future focus often results in misunderstandings, frustration or even failure in a leadership context. I wanted to work out what it really means to be a great leader today and how this can be developed for the good of the individual and his or her organisation."

Timeline Leadership stresses that understanding the past, attending to the present and keeping an eye on the future are all important, but also that the priority we give them varies at different stages of our working lives.

The ideas contained in Timeline Leadership are an amalgam of theories put forward by three gurus in the field. Warren Bennis underlined the importance of culture and placing the self firmly in the business culture; John Adair stressed the group dynamic and the need for a mix of skills; and Michael Lombardo proposed his theory of "derailment" which saw transition and the changing of one's field of view as essential in effective management.

Working within a narrow framework, without references to a complex culture, may be the way in which the dynamic young manager can get the best results. But to continue to work like that - to be "stuck in a box", as Mr Horan refers to it - is a recipe for disaster when that manager gets promotion. Then there is a call for more balance and a need to add on more sensitive skills. The new responsibilities will come as a shock unless there has been some preparation.

"At present there is often poor communication between the different management levels," said Mr Horan. "The younger ones tend to pooh-pooh such notions as integration and understanding."

The rift is not bridged by technology. IT has quickened the management processes so that people have to be more immediately accountable. Previously, an international manager going to a policy meeting in, say, Australia had time to assimilate the issues during the flight. Now that meeting might be a video conference, or be handled by e-mail or a multi-party phone call. Responses to questions have to be immediate. Everyone is more exposed.

Paradoxically, technology also allows today's managers to be more impersonal: e-mails replace face-to-face meetings and can even be sent at night if the writer wants to avoid immediate feedback.

Virtual teamwork can lead to ideas being pushed forward that have not been properly considered, Mr Horan believes. A manager will zap half- baked notions to his colleagues and wait for a reaction. This sloppiness means facts can be ignored. Thus, the physical distance between team members can lead to poorly thought-out strategies.

"The ideas pencilled on the back of an envelope used to be just that - ideas waiting to be developed," says Mr Horan. "Now e-mail allows them to be communicated straightaway in raw form. It is all very sloppy and managers, particularly young ones, should be warned against these dangers."

Mr Horan also argues that the younger manager who is at ease with IT etiquette in, say, its use of capital letters to indicate shouting, may well be extremely inarticulate in face-to-face discussion. "Maybe it is time to embrace the merits of proper communication again - to talk as part of a team and to appreciate the value of what used to be called wisdom."