My husband, Andy, and I kicked off the new year by co-presenting to 25 college students from our alma mater, Bucknell University, who participated in a week-long leadership intensive over their January break.
This was a hand-picked group of impressive, motivated young people. All had to apply for acceptance into the program, and most were from the school’s Management College.
The recently-retired business school dean and former Fortune 500 CEO who taught the class asked Andy and me to speak about our leadership experiences and philosophies because we have taken two very different career paths.
Andy’s has been more traditional and corporate. Mine, less conventional, and more entrepreneurial. The instructor also thought it would be insightful for the group to hear from a couple that has supported each other’s professional pursuits while managing our ever-changing personal responsibilities and interests.
It’s important to emphasize a couple of points:
- This was a leadership class. It was not a discussion about reimagining the way work is done or how to flexibly manage your work+life fit, although the students knew that’s my area of expertise from my bio.
- This was a diverse group of students, with men and women equally represented, and
- These are young adults who voluntarily cut their winter break short to participate in a rigorous leadership program led by a former business school dean and Fortune 500 CEO. They are by no means “slackers.”
Honestly, Andy and I weren’t sure what the group would want to know. Would they be more interested in Andy’s corporate career path or how I changed lanes from commercial banking to being an entrepreneur, author, and workplace strategist? Would the men direct more of their questions to Andy, and the women to me? What actually happened surprised us and is an urgent “heads up” for senior leaders who want to attract, retain, and develop this next generation of top talent.
The questions were evenly split between us and covered a range of challenges and opportunities we each faced throughout our careers. But what struck us both were the number of questions from the men in the room about how, when and where they would be able to do their jobs and find “balance” (which of course was the perfect opening for me to share the wisdom and power of work+life “fit” because there is no “balance” which they loved!).
Their questions weren’t about working less or not as hard. These students are clearly willing to give their all to future employers. Their questions reflected a sense that, in many cases, the rigid, traditional model of work was obsolete and needed to be modernized.
They wanted to understand how they, as future leaders, could encourage and contribute to the process of reimagining work. They valued professional success and were realistic about the level of effort required to achieve it, but they also valued personal well-being. They saw both as mutually-reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.
Again, this was mostly from the male students. What their curiosity and passion confirmed to me is we’ve finally reached the hour of reckoning.
Leaders can no longer ignore the strategic imperative to build a culture in which everyone, including this next generation, knows how to flexibly leverage time and tech tools, place, and workspace, as well as process and pace to achieve the goals of the business, get the job done and manage life.
Unfortunately, too often leaders dismiss any challenge to the traditional work model as, “Young people just don’t want to work hard” when, for most, it’s just the opposite. They want to explore how to work differently, but they need guidance. Leaders that seize the opportunity potentially leave new levels of innovation, productivity, and engagement as their legacy.
As one young man asked, “What do you say to senior leaders to get them to understand how important it is to rethink work?”
My answer, “First, I help them link high performance flexibility and positioning their business for success today…and tomorrow. Second, I show leaders how to marry the traditional strengths of their organization with new ways of working. But, ultimately, my message is simple—either you adapt, or you aren’t going to make it. And after speaking with all of you, I am even more certain of that.”
The hour of reckoning has indeed arrived. How is your organization responding when this next generation challenges the traditional ways work has always been done? Are you dismissing them as “slackers,” or are you listening? Are you using their questions to fuel innovation that will position your organization to thrive now and in the future, or are you doubling down on “business as usual”?