Collaborative Leadership Blog

Breaking the Cultural Ceiling

Deloitte released a survey in 2014 (Generation Y in the Workplace, January 22) that had two key findings for senior leadership:

  • 70% of Generation Y reject what traditional business and government have to offer—they are turning to the digital economy rather than climb the corporate ladder
  • 78% are influenced by how innovative a company is when deciding if they want to work there—a clear shift in values from high pay to high innovation

Traditional business leadership is often at a loss for how to attract and retain the digital generation. It is because their leadership style represents a Cultural Ceiling, a barrier that separates a 20th Century industrial leadership style from a 21st Century collaborative style. Unlike the Glass Ceiling which women have been trying to break up through in order to get into executive positions, the Cultural Ceiling is what senior leadership needs to go down through in order to relate with the digital generation. Here is the divide:

Traditional Leadership: On one side of the Cultural Ceiling is traditional leadership characterized by:

  • Command and control, or a focus on power and position
  • Politics as the way in which you get things done
  • A siloed organizational structure with a high degree of specialization
  • One way communications, with the workforce expected to sign up to the company’s strategy even though they may not see themselves in it
  • Fear as the primary motivator for the workforce
  • Performance evaluations based on individual performance

Collaborative Leadership: On the other side of the divide is what the digital generation expects and require when they come to work:

  • Collaborative leadership based on principle
  • Engagement and inclusion as the way to get things done
  • A flat, team-based organization that works horizontally and across boundaries
  • Two way communications where they feel heard and there is dialogue, not dictates
  • Trust as the primary motivator for the workforce
  • Performance evaluations based primarily on team and company

There are a number of drivers for the Cultural Ceiling, the first of which is generational. Senior leadership is typically in the 40-65 age range. They grew up with a more traditional approach to leadership. The digital generation, typically 25-40, grew up in collaborative work environments in high school and college. They are savvy with technology and social media, know how to work horizontally, are committed primarily to relationships rather than power, and know that the only way you can get work done is collaboratively.

A second driver is market realities. Our world is defined by rapid change, volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity. It is a world that is global and highly interdependent. An event in Paris is known globally in seconds.

A third driver is differences in professional horizons. Traditional leaders have climbed the corporate ladder and are focused on more traditional notions of success such as position, tenure, and compensation. The digital generation watched their parents jump through corporate hoops only to find them fired when the recession of 2008 happened, or lose all sense of work-life balance. They vowed not to do the same. To them, the quality of life, type of work, independence, relationship, and innovation are far more important.

What this means for traditional leaders is a fundamental shift in how they lead, and the work cultures they create—if they expect to attract and retain young talent. They must become collaborative leaders who lead from principle, are authentic and vulnerable, open and transparent, as well as agile and adaptive, and will let their workforces own their work. And, they need to learn how to listen so that the digital generation feels heard.

This is a tall order for any leader. But, as the Deloitte survey shows, resistance is futile. So here are some things traditional leaders can do to break the Cultural Ceiling:

  • Adopt a leadership vision that creates a more collaborative culture
  • Take down the silo walls; create a flatter, team-based environment
  • Create a common platform through agreements for how people will work together
  • Base performance primarily on team and company results
  • Create a two way communications process so that workforce feels heard
  • Have an ownership strategy that engages everyone when there is a significant change

It is possible to break the Cultural Ceiling, but it takes senior leadership recognizing that what got them to where they are today—the traditionalist leadership style—will not serve them at all today or tomorrow. Creating collaborative leadership cultures is the future. There is no better time to start than now.