Beyond Generational Research: Understanding Leaders at Different Life Stages

When we want to coach people entering the workforce, we look for research on Gen Z. When we want to coach experienced leaders or those planning for retirement, we look for research on Baby Boomers. Generational cohorts are a compelling way to think about different life and professional stages at a particular point in time. However, it is just one approach to answering these types of questions. Generational research is informative (we certainly conduct quite a bit), yet our inferences and conclusions will be much richer if we incorporate findings from studies that employ other approaches to similar questions. With this in mind, we recently conducted a study on leadership differences based on age cohort. This study took a global snapshot of leadership between 2015 and 2019, and explored differences between younger (25-40) and older leaders (45-60) in terms of behavior and competency ratings. Importantly, generational cohort membership was not considered in this study.

When studies such as this are combined with generational research, we can start to tweak apart the influence of generation and age. When used in coaching, this research helps us understand our clients more completely. Someone might seem like an atypical Gen Xer because they are placing more emphasis than you would expect on setting ambitious goals and testing limits (Production), and taking risks and exploring new ideas (Innovative). That is, until you realize that they can also be thought of as a young leader (not just a Gen Xer), and might show a tendency to behave in ways that align with that other group. Individuals are more complex than a single category, and their behavior is influenced in various ways by many different factors. While we may never be able to account for every single influencing factor, we should do our best to explore behavior from different perspectives.

We will continue to share novel research on leadership at different stages of life and professional development. Learn more about differences in leadership by reading our recent report.

About the author

Maria is Head of Research at MRG. She loves a challenge and often gets a little too excited about running new studies. She finds peace and balance by cooking (as long as her husband is doing the cleaning) or being anywhere near the ocean.

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