Is Social Media Partly To Blame?

Need Not ApplySomeone I know well who works for a multinational corporation has been experiencing an interesting glass ceiling: too much experience.

Now, I am not talking about that condition where an airline pilot applies to become a flight attendant, but something much less justifiable.

A friend of mine works for an old company where managers tend to have a touch of gray, and vice presidents a touch of color.  There are many factors upon which to measure leadership potential, including industry experience, the ability to think strategically & constructively and demonstrating a track record of inspiring others to follow.  These are certainly good harbingers of people-leadership ability and upward career mobility.

But what my friend is experiencing, who has worked for twenty years for this employer and has led working teams of his peers many times, is that he has become too old to promote – at just over 40 years old.

In less than two (yes, two) years, a young college grad with just five years’ employment experience, easily considered significantly junior to my friend, was promoted to Manager (not in his management chain) and then Director (now his boss’s boss).  My friend and dozens of other departmental workers with a generation of greater experience were passed over.  As you may well imagine, it has caused quite an internal stir.

It seems his employer is engaging in an unwritten policy of age discrimination.  At a recent departmental meeting, a higher exec explained that they are actively looking to promote young (not just young-er) people – so this discrimination has become admitted policy.

Before those who worship appointing youthful leadership (a hot trend in all kinds of organizations) jump all over this, consider for a moment: what should this mean for turning in consistently high performance, investing years of effort, actually sticking around and proving yourself?  Could Gen-X become the “lost” generation of leaders?  Is leadership best determined by youthful meekness and good-looks?  (His new director excels at both.)

But I digress.  My real question is why?

The scuttlebutt is that execs are worried – Millennials are not staying with the company, they are churning (despite strong salaries and benefits).  So they are being promoted ahead of more qualified, if older, candidates in order to keep them.  Is this the best solution for retaining Millennials that find less satisfaction in working long-term for the same employer?

I follow and continue to examine how the change in information technology is affecting our culture and workplaces.  There are some curious observations to be made.  The rise of instant communication and social media could be fundamentally altering attitudes about leadership development by existing leaders.

Prior to the internet age, it was more common (granted, not common enough) for execs to actively watch employees and look beyond technical merit for leadership ability.  One did not always need to ask to lead, one could be identified by others and tapped to lead.  Even so, internal company mentorship programs rapidly began to evaporate in the 1990s in my observation.

Fast forward to today: most of the workforce under 40 years of age have adapted to, (and those under 30 only know) a new form of leadership development: self-promotion as inspired by Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, and many other “look at me!” technologies.  Crying for professional attention was once an activity that was only occasionally done via resumes & cover letters, in interviews and when asking for a raise.   (Should you really have to ask?—Today, quite so.)  Before, if you did too much asking of others to look at you on a daily basis, you invited being looked down upon instead.

“LOOK AT ME!”

Presently, we have a culture of half of the workforce unashamedly asking others to look at them daily, hourly, even by-the-minute via their social media cultural training.  They consider it essential and good career development practice.  Indeed, I am posting this article on LinkedIn, which I just started using two months ago very late to the game because, as a business consultant, everyone kept telling me how essential social media is and that I was falling behind.  (So why the slightly sick, sheepish feeling I get every time I ask for an endorsement or for a new connection, while tracking my Connections-counter?

Get on board or get left behind — one of today’s cultural mantras.  Few express interest in attending my Luddite conferences, I admit.  But before ignoring this line of reasoning, think about the real impacts of how social media is changing company cultures.  How do we expect my friend’s new director to perform?  He hardly the knowledge to speak to many work circumstances he still has yet to experience.  His reputation is that he lacks the poise to stand up to an uninformed decision by a higher-level executive and advocate for his direct reports without the experience to know what solutions at his level work.  He has not garnered the goodwill and support of older employees with much more experience who he continues to consult for help and advice – yet now he will be writing their performance reviews and mentoring them??

Rather than consider this a win for Millennial career trajectories, I am very worried that in accepting the promotion without more life-taught wisdom to consider whether he was ready for it, he has just been positioned to fail – and then what?  Having worked for only a few years for one company post-graduation, if he is Peter-principled right out onto the sidewalk for utter ineffectiveness, what does he put on his LinkedIn page to explain why he is on the market?  How easy will it be for him then be hired back into a lower position?

Being in my mid-forties myself, still with much to learn and having already learned much, this whole condition worries me.  There is a natural order to developing true leadership let alone the rareness of the skill.  If this new trend in executive development with regard to who gets tapped for extra stock options is an indicator of baby-boomer acquiescence to the new cultural world order, the already short-supplied need for decisive, insightful, inspirational leadership may get a whole lot shorter with the ascendancy of youth.

Nonetheless, some existing company executives appear to be adapting to the new order.  They are settling for an easy answer instead of investing years of trial and testing to develop leaders.  Perhaps it looks attractive to them to stack middle management with unwitting yes-men and women who have not learned how to artfully pick their company battles, until these execs retire.  What happens next?  Will prematurely appointed middle managers become executives who struggle to win battles with competitors, regulators, etc. because they never learned how to effectively win?

Millennials might take care about being too eager to accept the keys to the escalator anchored at the top of the glass ceiling over a lost X-generation who thought they were next up at-bat.  Like waiting in line for your go-around on the go-cart track, the sign has recently been changed from “must be at least 42 inches tall to ride”.

The sign now says: “If you have grown taller than this line, you’re too old”.

Time for my friend to return to the end of the line.

Jeff Koenig

 

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  • Tom Bisel

    Up early, haven’t read your blog in a while, good stuff.

    I find this topic very interesting. Not only at a management level but also at a general laborer level. When getting applicants or people walking in and inquiring about a job, it’s at times comical. Many don’t understand that you must exhibit skills or experience in a particular field. Let alone not use their phone while on the clock.

    Reply

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