Lead different generations of Airmen with appropriate strategies

CHARLESTON AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- During a briefing recently, it became obvious from the follow-on discussion that it can be quite a challenge to lead and motivate different generations of Airmen.

It became apparent to me that situations and scenarios that appeared abnormal to one generation could easily be seen as not only normal, but actually closer to today's reality if observed by someone from the millennial generation.

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to motivating or leading others. Some people are eager to volunteer for a task, while others have to be directed. Try to organize a team of people from various generations and lead that team on a project. And just when you think you have all the right people in place, all they do is disagree about everything, even the basic task, which consumes both time and energy, often getting nowhere.

In today's Air Force, you work with people from four main generations. Nearly 50 percent of the Air Force joined after 2001. Changing times have forced leaders to find new ways to adapt as younger Airmen who have different views on lifestyle, authority and traditions join our nation's Air Force. Currently, members of all four generations are in various leadership positions and, in order to be successful, we have to learn how to coexist and communicate with all generations.

Experts define "generations" as a group of people who share the same formative experiences. These experiences bind people who are born in contiguous years into a demographic by using a common statistic such as birth year.

Generally, the current workforce can be divided into four generations. Below are the different generations and some strategies I have learned to help lead and motivate these different generations.

The Veteran Generation (born 1926-1945) -- Generally, they have a practical outlook, a dedicated work ethic, a respect for hierarchy and leadership and a penchant for self sacrifice. Strategy: Provide proactive technology support and services, take time to give them a personal touch like a hand-written note instead of an e-mail, explain the reasoning behind decisions, put value to their experience, and verbally and publicly acknowledge their experience.

The Baby Boom Generation (born 1945-1964) -- Typically, they are optimistic and driven. Strategy: Give them a lot of public recognition. Ask them for input; get their consensus. Reward their work ethic and long hours and demonstrate how you can use their talents.

Generation X (born 1965-1979) -- They can have a skeptical outlook, a free-agent work ethic and a tendency to be unimpressed with authority. Strategy: Give them a lot of projects. Give straightforward and constructive feedback, but resist micro-managing them. Reward their initiative and give them time to pursue other interests and have fun at work. They want independence.

Generation Y or the Millennial Generation (born 1980-1998) -- Many are still developing with a cautious yet optimistic outlook on life. They are dedicated to people, projects and ideas. Strategy: Learn about their personal goals and interests and make opportunities truly equal and forget about traditional gender roles. Open avenues for education and skill building. Establish mentor programs and remember their need for flexibility and work-life balances. They use various communication and technology methods to communicate like text messaging and Web pages.

In order to avoid cross generational disconnects and to encourage young Airman to succeed in new leadership roles, it is important to understand the perspectives and motivations of each generation. Leaders need to know the fundamental reasons for individual behavior and, once armed with that knowledge, use it to inspire cooperation, commitment and teamwork.

A common conflict among members of different generations is different perspectives on work-life balances. Older people may equate the desire for work-life balance with a lack of professionalism while younger people don't see this balance as interfering with their work or career decisions. Another example which often results in communication problems is a difference of opinion about what constitutes appropriate behavior.

As Air Force leaders, I think we all need to be more in tune with how each generation works, lives, operates and communicates. If we don't have this information and know how to use it as part of our skill set, we, as leaders and supervisors, will not be able to really understand what motivates Airmen to do the Air Force's mission and how to really make them into or be part of a cohesive team or unit regardless of size or mission.

Think about your organization. I'm sure you can immediately recognize there are several "generations" of Airmen in your units. They all have different goals, interests, work ethics and things that motivate them. Now imagine trying to form a good team with excellent communication and organizational skills. This task sometimes can be difficult without understanding "where they all sit and what perspective they bring to the table."

I challenge you to think about this and share ideas and strategies with each other on how we can improve communication and all be better Airmen.