Counter Mentor Leadership: An Interview with Kelly and Robby Riggs

The changes taking place in the workplace continue to fascinate me. Ask any Millennial how s/he approaches a problem and you’re likely to get a vastly different answer than his or her elders. Technology is everywhere, whether a company allows employees to bring in their own devices or not.

Brass tacks: it’s an interesting time to observe workplace changes. To this end, I recently sat down with Kelly and Robby Riggs to talk about their new book Counter Mentor Leadership: How to Unlock the Potential of the 4-Generation Workplace. The following is an excerpt from our conversation.

PS: What was your motivation for writing this book? K&R: Frankly, it resulted from a discussion we were having about who is at fault for the extreme conflict between the older and younger generations in the workplace. What we learned as a result of that conversation is that we were in complete agreement! We concluded that the problems in today’s workplace include both the traditional challenges of leadership (which are many), but also a number of new, previously unseen challenges created by technology and a generation raised on technology. We discovered that most managers don’t even understand the underlying issues, much less the potential solutions. But, while we’ve both encountered generational discord in the workplace, it has been from two completely different perspectives. Kelly was often asked if he could help companies learn how to “manage Millennials,” as though there are some magic tricks they could use to overcome everything that is “wrong” with younger employees. Robby, on the other hand, consistently ran head-on into the “we’ve-always-done-it-this-way” mindset from Boomers resisting change or new ideas. In fact, we’ve both heard that so often it’s almost comical. Boomer managers are often quick to malign Millennials, but resist—and often resent—the changes happening inside the work environment.

PS: Hasn’t managing younger folks always been challenging? What has changed today? K&R: There’s no question that leadership, at the most basic level, is freaking hard! It involves people, and conflict, and competing priorities, and deadlines, and a hundred other critical things. And managing young people simply adds to the list of potential issues. So, yes, it has always been difficult. However, what makes being an effective leader uniquely different today is that today’s young employee has been raised in a completely different culture, and usually has a much different understanding of the world.

They’ve also been radically impacted by technology. For the first time in history, Millennial and GenZ employees have something more to offer a company than simply ambition and native intelligence. They’ve mastered technology and social media and all of the shortcuts they provide and that often provide them with enormous advantages (and leverage) over their Boomer counterparts. PS: Talk to me about BOSSes and KIDS. K&R: The BOSS (the Boomer, Old-School Supervisor) is the manager everyone has worked for at one time or another. They’re typically micro-managers and tend to use phrases like, “that’s the way we’ve always done it” and “if I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.” The BOSS is the caricature of older, set-in-their-ways managers that struggle with technology and are petrified of change, who think the way to get promoted is to “pay your dues,” and until then, all decisions will be—and absolutely should be—made by the BOSS. The little cupcakes we lovingly call the KIDS (the Know-It-All, Digital, Self-Promoters), are the “younger” generations—Millennials and, now, Gen Z. The BOSS thinks the KIDS are entitled and selfish, but in reality, they are motivated and determined, although in ways that the BOSS will never recognize because they are so different. They are all-in on social media, constantly on their phones, and don’t understand why the BOSS doesn’t get it. PS: What does it take to be particularly effective at managing younger folks? What can we learn from your consulting experience and research from writing Counter Mentor Leadership? K&R: That’s a huge question! Briefly, we would say it takes focus and intent. Which seems simple, right? Unfortunately, the typical BOSS is so ridiculously busy that the idea of carving out time to focus on communicating, setting strategy and direction, and developing the team is just too much. It’s overwhelming! We hear it over and over: “I get it, this is important, but where am I going to find time to invest in leadership?” Frankly, we’ve learned that leadership is a pay-me-now or pay-me-more-later enterprise. If managers today don’t focus on being transformational, engaging leaders—doing things COUNTER to how they’ve always been done—they’ll never get off the hamster wheel. They will always be too busy.

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