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Generation X Leaders

Global Leadership Forecast 2018

Generation X-Change:

Don’t Underestimate the Powerful Influence of Gen X Leaders

Stephanie Neal

As companies grapple with how to transform and innovate better and faster, the population of leaders guiding these decisions is changing dramatically. Most popular discussions about the next generational shift has centered on the mass of Baby Boomers retiring or the eager ascension of Millennials into leadership. Often overlooked is the next generation to leadership, Generation X, which is leading the way in a time of great change with technology advancement, how jobs are automated and created, and how businesses are designed and transformed. Born between 1965 and 1981 and with an average of 20 years’ experience in the workplace, members of “Gen X” are primed to take on nearly every important leadership role in organizations. They already hold 51 percent of leadership roles globally and will continue to grow into more senior positions. Yet, little is commonly known about what defines the Gen X leadership experience and style. It’s time for that to change.

Generation X-Change

The Early Technology Adopters

Although Millennials are most recognized for having grown up with technology, Gen Xers were early technology adopters and gamers who use social media more habitually than any other generation*. This has translated to their leadership skill set. According to data from more than 25,000 leaders, ratings from Generation X show they are just as confident in their digital leadership capability as Millennials, with slightly more than half of Gen X and Millennial leaders rating themselves as highly or very highly effective (54 percent and 56 percent, respectively). This Gen X digital savvy is balanced by strength in more conventional leadership skills such as driving execution and building talent, which are areas in which Millennials rated themselves lower than both Baby Boomer and Gen X leaders.

Slower to Ascend, But Loyal

Perhaps part of the reason that Generation X has flown under the radar in the rise to leadership is that it happened slowly. Baby Boomers occupied higher-level leadership roles longer in their careers and held off for later retirement. Meanwhile, Millennials surged into the workforce eagerly, and although this younger generation has often been unfairly labeled as impatient and promotion-needy, perceptions have an impact.

Gen X may have become the “middle child” in career advancement, as leaders from this generation have the slowest promotion rate. Compared to leaders from the other generations, Gen X leaders received, on average, just 1.2 promotions in the last five years with their company, versus an average of 1.6 for Millennials and 1.4 for Baby Boomers. Interestingly, even though Gen X leaders aren’t advancing as quickly as they would like, they’re less likely than Millennials to change companies or leave in the near future. Only 37 percent of Gen X leaders reported that they expect to change companies to progress their leadership careers, compared to 42 percent of Millennials.

Driving Growth Through External Learning

Although most Gen X leaders aren’t looking outside for a new job, they are seeking more external development and coaching than any other generation. In fact, leaders from this generational cohort are much more likely than either Millennial or Baby Boomer leaders to prefer external coaching over internal coaching. Most notably, 67 percent of Gen X leaders said they would like more external coaching, compared to only 47 percent who said they want more coaching from their managers—a 20 percent difference.

Gen Xers also reported that they want more externally developed (57 percent) than internally developed (46 percent) material to support their leadership development, whereas an equal number of Millennials and Baby Boomers reported wanting more of both types of material. This is a strong indication that not only do Gen Xers see new opportunity in outside learning, but also that organizations that can successfully employ more external learning may be able to extend their capabilities into new areas and lines of business with this next generation of leaders.

* 2016 Nielsen Social Media Report,

Where to Start
  • Build tech capability with the right tools. Gen X leaders have a unique perspective on how to work with, develop, and leverage new technologies. Provide them, and all leaders, with the tools and support needed to leverage technology for greater business impact.
  • Provide leaders with more external guidance. Encourage looking outside the organization for coaching and development guidance, especially as leaders face new and more complex business challenges for which they may not have internal mentors.
  • Don’t promote generational stereotypes. Avoid catering programs to any single generation or group so that you don’t alienate others. Seek cross-generational feedback to improve outcomes for everyone.
How to Excel + Differentiate
  • Encourage leaders to challenge the status quo. Gen Xers are taking the lead at a time when change is regular and desirable. Provide them the freedom and encouragement to try out new approaches and challenge old ones to encourage innovation and growth.
  • Leverage technology to support traditional development. The large majority of leaders, regardless of generation, said they want more traditional learning. Technology can be a powerful enabler of that development. Gen X and Millennial leaders will especially benefit from additional technology-based development tools they can access and control on their own when needed.
Talk to an Expert: Generation X Leaders
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