Raging, white-foamed water surrounded our black rubber craft. The raft seemed like a bathtub toy compared to the expanse of the river. The noise was deafening. My stomach lurched as we sank into another unexpected drop. Menacing boulders poked up through the water. Why had I selected Class IV and Class V rapids for my first white-water experience?
My first white-water rafting expedition was with a group on the New River in West Virginia, with rapids that have special names attached to them. Paddling the tranquil water before the first rapid, I found it hard to believe that we would hit rough waters. But the rafting guide’s instructions kept pounding in my head: “Don’t lose your cookies.” She had informed us that we should navigate that rapid before lunch! I was nervous. Suddenly the raft several hundred feet ahead of me disappeared. It simply dropped out of sight. All my senses came to attention.
Fear seized me. My stomach churned. I clutched the oar tightly, preparing myself for the precipitous drop just ahead of me. There was no turning back. We had miles to go and numerous rapids to ford before the adventure would end. I wondered if I would survive. Hours later, exhausted from all the adrenalin that had pumped through my body, we arrived at the end of our journey. I had lived to tell the tale. And I even had a photo to prove it!
Similar thoughts, feelings, and reactions emerge when people are faced with transition in an organization, especially when the change involves leadership. And let’s face it—in the life of an organization the time to transfer leadership will come if the group hopes to continue. The first question becomes What will the transition look like? Is it possible to prepare for transition in ways that allow for tranquil waters or at least smaller rapids? Does transition have to be tumultuous, wrenching, and as terrifying as Class IV and Class V rapids? How can we pull together to make leadership succession work between generations?
In today’s workforce no one is exempt from the fact that four generations are currently represented. From the worlds of business and education to nonprofit organizations and churches, a similar scenario exists. One might find in the same company a seventy-year-old working alongside a twenty-two year- old. Down the hall, a Gen Xer might be consulting with a Baby Boomer. What are the defining qualities of each of these generations? Many questions come to the surface:
• Are there generational differences in work ethic—and if so, what are they?
• How does each generation relate and respond to authority figures?
• How does each generation perceive women in leadership?
• What are their expectations in the workplace?
• How do they balance the demands of work and home?
• What are their views about money and fiscal responsibility?
• How does each generation view the role of leadership in an organization?
These questions reflect the need to better understand the values and behaviors of each of these four generations. Research indicates that our perception of leadership is linked to the particular generation in which we grew up. Without that knowledge, transitions in leadership can be very messy. Insight and appreciation of generational differences can prepare a workplace for a much smoother changeover.
The Silent Generation consists of those born between 1925 and 1942. They are the children born during the Great Depression and the generation sandwiched between the first and second world wars. Boomers followed the Silent Generation (1943–1960) and were raised in an era of opportunity, progress, and optimism. They also experienced a radically changing society marked by rebellion, shifting social norms, and outward challenges of authority. Growing up in the shadow of the Boomers, Gen Xers were born between 1961 and 1981. They are technologically savvy and were raised in the age of dual-career families. Finally, Millennials, some of the newest members of the workforce, were born between 1982 and twenty years thereafter. A “plugged-in” generation, they have been around technology since birth. The Internet world of blogs, wikis, podcasts, and ever-present e-mail is as natural to them as breathing.
Each of these distinct groups of people see life differently because of the times in which they grew up. Just consider the differences that might exist in financial matters between those who grew up during the Great Depression and those who were raised in the “instant credit, no-payment-until-next year” society.
Might there be a clash between Henry, a member of the Silent Generation who sees leadership as the general who goes to the helm, and Jason, an Xer who is distrustful of leaders and prefers collaboration? You can almost feel the white water forming.
How can we navigate the rapids of transition? The answer to that question is the reason for this book. So grab your oar, don’t forget your life jacket, and push off into the white water. It is going to be quite a ride!
Meet the Rafting Team
Rumbling down the dirt path to the launch site, the aging yellow bus that once served public schools came to a creaking halt. Daniella, the guide, stood stoically on the riverbank to meet the latest group, their company having paid good money for a white-water adventure. Medium height, bronzed from the sun, and rippling muscles, she has encountered all types. Nothing would surprise her.
The bus door opened. Only four brave souls stepped off—a small band of rafters today. They are a departmental task force from Handover Corp., (* Handover Corp. and all of its “employees” are fictitious.) a medium-sized company that was founded in the 1950s in the local area. The company rep told her this was a team-building exercise. Daniella, a Swiss-German, sized them up.
Nate, a tall and lean young man in his early twenties, appears to be in his own world. His black special-edition iPod matches his long dark shorts and is blaring tunes into his ears. A plain white tank shirt exposes a solid tan and well-etched muscles. A simple, black, lattice-looking tattoo circles his right bicep. His head is shaved. Nate hung out at Starbucks last night, researching this rafting expedition. The GPS software on his laptop allowed him a virtual tour of the river, with close-ups of each rapid. He Skyped a buddy of his in the Ukraine who had gone white-water rafting a few months ago, and then he eased into a chatroom to get some more input. He can hardly wait to blog the experience. Hired fresh out of college with a degree in computer security, Nate has been with Handover only a year. He blocks the hackers.
Nate has no idea how long he will be with Handover. Maybe he will start his own business in a few years.
Brianna, a blond who just turned thirty-two, looks distracted. She barely made it to the bus on time after dropping off her only child, Abby, at preschool. Her husband, Kyle, owns his own business, and they both work hard, juggling the demands of home and work. At least they share the load equally and have some flextime in their schedules. Handover even allows her to work from home one day a week. She designs webpages and has been with the company for five years. Brianna is short and a little thick in the hips. Too much fast food. But her turquoise-blue tank suit with matching sarong covers most of the overindulgence.
She IM’ed a bunch of friends the day before to talk about this trip and was feeling better about it. A team-building experience would look good on her resume. Who knows how long she will be at Handover? Opportunities abound, and experienced webpage designers are in demand.
Brad is in his late forties and wonders if he can actually do this. Although stocky and athletic, he has suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome and a frozen shoulder in the past year. Besides that, his desk is piled with a backlog of work. He really doesn’t have time for this. He sincerely hopes that extra compensation is coming his way for his participation and that he will survive it unscathed. Brad designs software and works extra hours, trying hard to please. Handover is going through some transitions, and he wants to avoid any downsizing. He has twenty years with the firm; but software design could be outsourced. He would like to retire early, at age fifty-five, with a solid pension and then explore other options—like the local golf course. He is expecting a sizeable inheritance. At least he looks good in his Eddie Bauer rafting outfit and Ray-Ban sunglasses. A Nike baseball cap covers his head.
George, though the oldest member, is spunky. At sixtyeight his wrinkled face reflects his years, but he stands tall and confident. He could stand to lose a few pounds, but they are mostly concentrated in his paunch. A pork-pie hat sits squarely on his balding head. A navy blue T-shirt hangs loosely over his torso, with the white Handover Corp. logo squarely over his chest. He has worked at Handover his entire career and is proud to be part of the organization. He maintains the computer hardware. George wants to keep working as long as he can. Handover hadn’t focused much on team building in the past. But times—they are a-changin’. He can adapt. He is a survivor.
“Good morning,” Daniella said rather flatly to the foursome. How many times have I given this spiel? “Welcome to the Black River Rafting Expedition. Everyone needs a life jacket, oar, and helmet. Please suit up.”
As she observed the foursome rummaging through the bin of life jackets and helmets, a question jogged through her mind: How do these four folks work together in the same department?
A totally different question ran through the minds of the Handover group: Can this tough lady get us safely down the river?
“Where do you want us to sit in the raft?” asked George, his comment dragging her back to the present. “I’d like to sit in the front, if you don’t mind,” he said.
Brad rolled his eyes and shot a quick glance at Brianna, who mouthed, “What’s new?” Nate was just unplugging his iPod.
Daniella rasped, “Just get in. We’ll sort it out in a few minutes. I’ve got the rudder position.”
As the raft slid into the river, George was perched in the front, Brad was on the right side, Brianna was on the left side, and Nate was in the back with Daniella. The inky water was like glass, smooth and tranquil.
“Okay, let’s review a few things,” said Daniella. “First, I’m guiding this raft. If you don’t listen to me, you could put all of us at risk. Until it gets rough, you are free to sit on the sides of the raft. But when I say to get down and sit low, do it. At some places in the rapids we’ll have to pull strongly to one side or the other. And sometimes the roar of the water will be deafening. You’ll have to strain to hear me. Everyone needs to repeat my instructions out loud so we are all on the same page. Questions, anyone?”
“Got it,” replied George. Just follow the directions.
“Sounds logical to me,” said Brad. Let’s get this show on the road; I’ve got work to do. Sure hope my shoulder doesn’t flare up again.
“I’m with the team,” responded Brianna, her voice a little shaky. This could be riskier than I thought. I have Abby to think about.
“Yo, I’m in,” chimed Nate. This looked awesome on the GPS.
“All right, let’s practice a few maneuvers,” commanded Daniella. “Nate, take a position behind Brianna. And George, move back in front of Brad.”
“Okay, we’ve got two on the right and two on the left. When I say ‘Paddle left,’ George and Brad stop paddling; and Brianna and Nate, you guys paddle like your lives depended on it. Reverse it for ‘Paddle right.’”
“Paddle right,” shouted Daniella. “And remember to repeat the command.”
“Paddle right,” Nate, Brad, Brianna, and George said in unison. It was a little anemic.
“Shout it loud!” yelled Daniella from the back of the raft.
“PADDLE RIGHT!” screamed the foursome. George and Brad paddled furiously, moving the rubber raft significantly to the right.
“Low in the boat,” commanded Daniella.
“Low in the boat!” came the reply, and all four of them slid off the sides and sat down.
“Okay, one last maneuver,” said Daniella. “All of you need to be able to get back in the boat if you go overboard. Brianna, let’s start with you. Slide out, and I’ll show you how to get back in.”
Before she could protest, Daniella gave Brianna a little nudge, and over she went with a splash.
“Dang, it’s cold!” Brianna exclaimed, trying to catch her breath from the shock of the chill. Grabbing the side of the raft, she tried to pull herself up; but her legs slid under the boat, and she looked helpless.
Daniella chuckled. “Okay, good try. Grab onto the raft, and put one leg over. The rest of us will help you roll back inside.”
Brianna placed her short, hefty leg on the side of the raft; and, sure enough, it worked—Brad and Nate pulled her in.
George, Brad, and Nate all took turns getting into the water and maneuvering back into the boat. Nate was the only one with enough upper body strength to pull himself in without assistance.
“One final thing,” said Daniella. She reached beneath her life jacket, unsnapped a sheath, and pulled out a menacing six inch hunting knife. “If someone goes overboard and gets trapped under the raft, I have to act quickly. I’ll slash the raft and try to pull the person up. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I’ve had to do it before. Questions, anyone?”
Brianna’s face was ashen. All of this for a team-building exercise?
“All right, let’s go!”
Daniella dug her oar strongly in the water and pushed out to the center of the river. What a motley crew. Oh well, we’re in this boat together. Time to experience the real thing.
Not too far ahead lay the first rapid, “Big Mama,” a steep drop and blazing ride through white water, shifting currents, and a challenging obstacle. The team would soon be tested.