On Management

Dec. 21, 2004
Changing the way America works -- Part III
(This column continues a series begun last year, reflecting on issues of people and work.) Managers today must deal with workforces that are demographically diverse. To younger workers, many significant events in the lives of their supervisors and managers seem like ancient history. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King are events they read about in a history book. The term "winding a watch" has no meaning for them in this battery-powered age. Managers born in the middle of the 20th century lived through the boom of the 1960s and the inflationary 1970s, when interest rates soared to double-digit levels. New workforce entrants barely understand the term "runaway inflation." Technology comes naturally to them, while older, technophobic managers often can't cope with the avalanche of innovations. Personal life choices weigh more heavily with new workers than with prior generations. In dealing with the workforce of the 21st century, managers should keep a couple of rules in mind:
  • The first rule: Judge people, as well as leaders, on their competence, character, and courage -- not on the color of their skin, country of origin, age, or sex. In many cases, older workers will find themselves reporting to managers who are a generation younger. The new workers (or managers) may be female or have African, Asian, or Hispanic heritages. Many are immigrants whose ethnicity is evident from their physical appearance -- unlike earlier waves of Caucasian immigrants whose features did not readily identify their nationality, even if their language did. A worker's country of origin is relevant only because it likely has contributed to his or her values. The values of the new workforce differ widely, and their perceptions of leadership may be different, too. In time, sociologists will develop theories on how to lead this new generation of workers, but that guidance may come too late. We must deal with these issues now, and determine what these changes mean for managers and supervisors.
  • The second rule: Learn all about computers, communication devices, and new technology -- their uses, shortcomings, and potential -- or get left behind.
Computer literacy is a given for much of the new workforce. Many managers are less computer literate than the incoming workforce. This presents a problem when new computer-based tools are introduced into the workplace. Workers may grasp their use and significance more quickly than their managers. This can damage manager-employee relationships. Devices like cell phones, pagers, and personal digital assistants, as well as use of the Internet, are familiar to a generation that grew up with video games, remote controls, cordless phones, beepers, and PCs. As new technology permeates the workplace, older workers often must learn to swallow their pride and rely on the younger ones to help them adopt, use, and master it. This may be a bitter pill for many experienced workers and managers to swallow. Successfully blending the knowledge, ambition, and experience of diverse groups is the key to success in the future. Management, more than ever, must be willing to look at workers based on what they can do -- not their age or their ethnic origins. By itself, advancing technology is powerful. But it works best when it is married to skills and experience developed over years of work. And it is especially powerful when combined with a strong work ethic, youthful exuberance, and a drive to succeed. Older, more experienced workers can provide experience and context while younger ones contribute technological prowess and energetic drive. The combination should produce exciting times in the years ahead. John Mariotti, a former manufacturing CEO, is the author ofSmart Things to Know About Brands(1999, Capstone Ltd.). His e-mail address is [email protected].

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