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‘Know why’ over ‘Know how’

Harvard’s Jim Hesketh is hosting an interesting forum on whether ‘Millennials’ – people born at the tail end of the 1970s – will make good managers and leaders or not. They’re the “Generation Y” who are seen as hard work by the people who manage them because they prize ‘know why’ over ‘know how’ – If they don’t buy into the ‘why’ of what you are doing you won’t get their whole-hearted co-operation.

My thoughts are that the Gen Y, with their lack of respect for authority and constant questioning and tinkering and need for reasons, are shaping up to be a far better crop of leaders than the current lot if this example (below)is anything to go by. It impressed me, anyway…

I just came back from a family holiday in Portugal. I always enjoy these, as it allows me to reconnect with my older son and his wife while lounging around the pool reading and chatting, and I always learn something from them. They are ‘Millenials’, I guess, though I’m never sure about the wisdom of classifying a whole generation with particular traits: it seems based on the same principle as astrology.

Anyway, here’s what I learnt from Chantel, my daughter-in-law, this time around:

She manages the children’s department in a book store. The previous department head had been in post for years and left suddenly. Chantel was promoted into the position. No-one else knew how the department was run. It just ran well, with the department head seen as the fount of all knowledge and the ‘go to’ person to deal with any problems, as is often the case with a long-standing efficient department manager who has been in place for years.

Since no-one expected the department head to leave, there had been no succession planning. So, where do you go when the ‘go to’ person has gone? “I found this hidden world of paperwork and processes that the previous boss had kept away from me, for all the right reasons. This was the secret formula that kept the department running well and I was terrified of tinkering with it,” said Chantel.

Chantel took a deep breath and spent some time figuring out how it all worked. Then she spotted an improvement she wanted to make, made it, and held her breath. Had she messed with the magic formula? Would it all come crashing down around her ears? Suddenly people came out of the woodwork saying how great the change was and why hadn’t they done it before. Emboldened by this, she made some more changes, each of which was welcomed. Nobody had imagined doing things differently before because, well, it had all worked fine before.

A few months on and Chantel has been offered another promotion, managing the children’s department at another store. She is grooming her successor in the old job, introducing her to the paperwork and the processes that the department head has to manage, because she doesn’t want her successor left in the dark and having to figure it out herself, as she had to.

And this is the bit that impressed me: “I said to her, when I come back in a few months to visit, don’t let me find this all the same as I left it. Make changes! Make it better! I don’t want to find when I come back that you are doing the same things I was. I want you doing it better than I did!”

I love that message: “Here’s what you’re inheriting and your job is to change it!” “Change this!” is such a powerful green light to flash at leaders coming into new positions. As ever, that means leaders at all levels, not just the official leader in the hierarchy.

It contrasts powerfully with the old notion of leaders as guardians of the way things have been done and as champions of their own way of doing things, and scared of allowing alternative approaches in case they turn out to be better than their own.

If that’s typical of Millenial generation leadership, then I think we are in safe hands.

Here’s Jim Hesketh’s forum, over at the Harvard Working Knowledge site

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