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Lessons From Broadway, Part 2 August 14, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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A recent opportunity to see three Broadway shows in three days has me finding leadership lessons on the Great White Way.  Here’s another.

One of the shows I got to see this summer was Mamma Mia!, a love story set to the music of Abba.   Mamma Mia! is a great show on several levels, despite the fact that it forces people to put an exclamation point in the middle of a sentence when they write about it.

The story is actually two stories: a young girl seeks to find her real father just before her marriage, while her mother comes to terms with the love she lost long ago.  As a result, the show has two casts: the young girl, her friends, and fiancé; and the mother, her friends, and previous lovers.  These groups interact, of course, but they also spend a lot of time on stage independently of one another.

While the show is wonderful, it quickly becomes clear that the older troupe can act and sing rings around the younger cast members.  Their timing, presence, and stage business is subtly better; they are more natural on stage and deliver a better performance.  The younger actors aren’t bad, but the older ones are better.

The younger group, on the other hand, can dance like there’s no tomorrow and get to engage in more physical numbers and a bit more shtick than the older group.  And irrespective of acting chops, spandex jumpsuits favor the young.

I’m hopeful that most of us do not deal with spandex at work, but almost all of us are dealing with a similar generational divide in our teams.  More than ever before, we have waves of younger employees coming into our businesses with distinctly different skills and approaches to life and work.

Much has been made of this Millennial Generation and how we need to reshape our world to accommodate their new ideas.  The more seasoned members of the team, naturally, are a bit put out by this approach and wonder why their ideas and approach are suddenly out of favor.

I’m not a big fan of turning our business world upside-down to make Millennials feel all warm and fuzzy at work.  But I’m also not convinced that the “old ways” are the only way.  The reality is that there are useful ideas on both sides of this generational divide, and we need to exploit them all to be successful.  Like the blended cast that makes Mamma Mia! successful, we need to draw from both groups to build a better whole.

The rapid changes that social media and web-based technology are bring to our world are important, if not fully understood.  The Millenial enthusiasm for that technology is important, and we need to harness it, no matter what the older curmudgeons say.  Conversely, with age comes perspective, and there are some real traps in those tools that are only understood by those who have been burned before.  The risk needs to be managed, despite the complaining of those young whippersnappers.

Where should the leaders be?  Right in the middle.  That’s why you need to engage this technology, not just read about it in an airplane magazine.  Most of us have the experience part, but we need to learn, first-hand, what these tools can and can’t do.  With real data in hand, we can speak to both sides of the issue and pull the best parts from each.  But that direct experience is crucial, allowing you to earn the respect that lets you speak credibly to your younger team members.

Each of us have to craft a successful show from all the actors at our disposal.  Find the best singers, dancers, and actors, and get them on the stage together.  But please, avoid the spandex.


1. Victoria J. Stead - August 14, 2009

As a Millenial myself, I am grateful to have worked for companies that are more open to suggestions and flexible as long as the work gets done. Allowing me (some) freedom in how I work, encouraging my optimistic personality and supporting feedback on my ideas (even if they’re not used) makes me probably 50-75% more productive than if I had to follow the “old ways” in everything I do at work. In fact, by allowing me to implement a couple of new recruiting concepts and practices, without changing anything else or pursuing new clients, my former employer’s company grew from 7-10 people on billing to 35 people in 6 months and 55+ in the two years that I worked there.

I understand the poor reputation that can accompany the idea of working with or managing a Millenial. I attended a conference last October that had a breakout panel session on generational differences in a workplace. I was appalled at some of the expectations and demands that some of the Millenial’s in the audience voiced during the question and comment session.

I don’t think that the majority of us are looking for anything unreasonable and while we can function in a more rigid “old way” environment, we thrive with a few small changes.

2. Chuck Musciano - August 15, 2009

I think you summarize the value of a blended workplace nicely. The point is that neither generation is perfect, and that each bring something to the table worth considering. Just as the blended cast in Mamma Mia! creates a sum greater than the parts, combining ideas from both generations works best. Millenials need to recognize the value that experience brings; experienced workers need to be willing try new things. Both sides need to be willing to give a little bit to make it work.

3. rikerjoe - August 16, 2009

Nice post, Chuck. There has been a lot of discussion in my office regarding workforce demographics and the apparent differences in values between the more seasoned ranks and the fresh-outs. Yet you hit it on the head with one simple statement: The Leaders should be right in the middle.

4. koerberwalker - August 17, 2009

What an excellent analogy Chuck. Diversity of styles, skill sets, and backgrounds can bring tremendous value to a team or the larger organization. Sometimes these diferences are genrational, but they can also be gender based, cultural, atc.

As leaders it is our job to leverage the best resources fron each group to create a stonger whole. Reasonable accommodations are smart, but shifting too far in one direction or the other can negate the positive contributions that can be unique to one group at the cost of antagonizing another group.

It is up to the leader, as director and choreographer, to strike right the balance.

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