From Slackers to the C-suite

How Gen X Leaders Transform Organizations

Bad team players, disloyal, cynical, disengaged, slackers.

And that’s just a sampling of the lovely language that’s been used to describe Gen X (prior, of course, to our collective obsession with Millennial-bashing). As Gen X (those born between 1965 and 1979) moves into the upper levels of leadership, it’s time to dig more deeply into what makes this misunderstood generation unique.

The name comes from Canadian novelist Doug Coupland’s dark and hilarious book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Generation. He captured the skeptical, iconoclastic, change-hungry ethos in a way no one had before:

“Negative? Moi? I think realistic might be a better word. You mean to tell me we can drive all the way from here to L.A. and see maybe ten thousand square miles of shopping malls, and you don’t have maybe just the weentsiest inkling that something, somewhere has gone very very cuckoo?”

Can you see the joie de vivre peeking through the protective cynicism? That’s vintage Gen X.

This is the generation shaped by AIDS, divorce, the Challenger explosion, the OJ Simpson chase, the controversial verdict and the protests that followed, the tech bubble and watching their resumes dissolve as the bubble burst. And they’ll never fail to remind you that they had MTV when MTV played music videos. The glory days.

Gen X is the baby bust that followed the Baby Boom. Like a classic middle child, they’re used to slipping through the cracks — and often using that to their advantage. The first latchkey children, they’ve been making their own way and making their own choices since they could tie their shoes. (No Velcro for them.)

These formative events and conditions created an independent, entrepreneurial, and skeptical generation.

As leaders, Generation X is allergic to sugarcoating and obsessed with efficiency. When process gets in the way, it’s time for the process to go. Organizational structures can always get more agile — or they can go out the door entirely, too. As Gen Xers take over the C-suite, it’s imperative for organizations to understand how they will reshape leadership in their own image.

Gen Xers have few sacred cows. They willingly let go of the way things have always been done, without any tribal attachments to old processes, procedures and norms. Gen Xers will come to rely on — and promote — those who can roll with changes, implement accordingly and be cheerleaders for change. But they need to be sensitive to the fact that with more transparency, agility and speed can come emotional upheaval, particularly for the generation that built or depended on the old structure.

Gen Xers will bridge the gap between traditional hierarchies and progressive matrixes. For more than a decade, organizations have been dismantling strict hierarchies and leveraging matrixed models to break down silos, provide transparency and move faster. It’s been a bumpy road, particularly for generations that depended on the hierarchies for clear career paths. Gen X leaders started their careers in these hierarchies so they have an appreciation for both the strengths and the drawbacks of this model. They could be the generation to combine the order of a hierarchy with the agility of a matrix.

Gen Xers are transparent. Knowledge hoarding, PR-massaged internal corporate communication and sugarcoating will be left in the dustbin of history. Communication will be frequent, unfiltered and honest.

Gen Xers are true tech-believers. The rapid growth of artificial intelligence plays right into efficiency-obsessed Gen X leaders’ hands, accelerating a trend toward companies doing a lot more work with a lot fewer people. Keeping critical skills up to date, being adaptable, constantly learning and retraining when necessary will be imperative to finding success in the future of work.

Gen Xers came of age in a world that didn’t think much of them — and they made it clear they didn’t think much of the way the world had been run by the generations before. Gen X leaders have shed the slacker image, but they haven’t shed the skepticism and independence that earned it. Their reign over the C-suite is likely to be short, squeezed between retirement-proof Boomers and eager Millennials, but they will leave an indelible mark on how we work today, and in the future.