Generation X is a unique generation. Defined as individuals born between 1961 and 1982, this was the first generation that dared to be different. They were born on the heels of Baby Boomers and expected to be high achievers. They were also the first to have the responsibility of being latch key kids due to society’s, then, new trend of working mothers and single-parent homes as a result of the first ever large-scale divorce rates. As such, Generation X-ers grew up with a sense of independence and confidence not seen in any generation before them. The tension that exists between Baby Boomers and X-ers in the work place at times can be like oil and water. Boomers are traditionalists and believe in institutions. X-ers are risk takers and do not expect to achieve career success after putting 25 years into an organization. The professional expectation of GenX-ers versus their personal desire to live on purpose has many of them, according to Dr. Curtis Odom, “Somewhere between who they are and who they want to be.” In other words, they are “stuck in the middle.”
In Dr. Odom’s new book, Stuck in the Middle: A Generation X View of Talent Management, he tackles the career struggles of his fellow generational peers. I had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Odom a few weeks ago about the challenges of his generation and how they can adapt achievable talent management tactics to enhance their career experience. Although he speaks to the Generation X demographic, I believe anyone seeking to steer his or her career in a new direction should take heed to his advice.
EBONY: Let’s start with your generation and its pursuit of happiness. In your book you ask a really striking question, “Do you want to deny your career passion simply because it may be different than anything you have done professionally to this point?” With over ten years professional experience and quite possibly a personal life filled with great responsibility, at what point does a GenX-er pursue what makes them happy?
Dr. Curtis Odom: Great question. In 2010, I sat back and asked myself, “Throughout my career journey when was I my happiest?” I think we [GenX-ers] should ask ourselves this very question. For me, I discovered I was happiest when I was mentoring and coaching others and being my own boss. I was also able identify the things within the work place that I will not compromise on. Those things are: 1. I must be able to be able to be my authentic self. 2. I must feel valued. 3. I must feel appreciated and welcomed. 4. I must be able to contribute at the level I am comfortable with. In order to get these four things, I know for sure I need to work for myself. With an average of 40 years worth of career in each of us and just over 20 years left for GenX-ers, I simply say how long are you willing to spend doing what you think you should be doing versus what you know you should be doing?
EBONY: Welp! There you have it. Great point.
EBONY: Would you then say being an entrepreneur is the only way to find true career happiness?
CO: No. Not at all. Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone. The state of being in flux [procuring clients, constantly going, etc.] is maddening to some people. I have plenty of friends who are very happy being traditional W-2 employees. At the end of the day, we should all be working in an environment that is perfect for us.
EBONY: That’s a great way to put it. Now, let’s shift gears a bit. In your book, you also stress the importance of talent management. In the corporate space, what can GenX-ers ask for at the negotiation table to make their experience more beneficial?
CO: Well, we have to make it clear that we need to be challenged. Give us the opportunity to work on cross-functional things so we can showcase what we really bring to the table. Specifically for GenX-ers of color, we are seen as high performers rather than high potentials. Therefore, we tend to get more of the same kind of work thrown at us instead of the challenging work. We need to ask for opportunities that will get us seen across the entire enterprise so that we become visible for more than just what we were hired to do.
CO: And let me add, when you are told you are a “high potential,” be willing to ask what exactly does that mean? Being a high potential and a cup of coffee gets you a cup of coffee.
CO: It doesn't really do anything for you unless you know what it means. Understand if being a high potential is going to equal you getting a promotion in six months- or not. When you have 18-19 years experience under you belt, you’re less likely just to stay at an organization hoping to excel. We hear the clock ticking.
EBONY: Interesting. Let’s talk a little about being a GenX-er of color, or a Black professional across the board. As professionals of color, how can we better position ourselves to be of greater value to these corporations?
CO: We as Black people have been given this advice for so long of just ‘go in and work hard’, “pay the tax.” But a mentor of mine told me: If you can’t be replaced, you can’t be promoted. And if you think about it, why in the world would you get promoted if you do such a great job doing what you do?!
CO: For this reason, I suggest two things for us. First, make sure your direct reports can do your job. Work to get them to the position where the organization can function without you. Secondly, ask for opportunities to operate at the level you want to be. You can’t just sit there and hope someone sees you working. Go to your boss and ask, “What can I take off your plate?” This is the winning question! This one question takes you from being someone of high-performance to someone of high potential.
EBONY: Wow! You need to write a book or something!
CO: Here’s a profound message to keep in mind that a Caucasian mentor enlightened me to: “People of color get promoted based on the work they do. Caucasians get promoted based on what they might be able to do.” Just something to keep in mind.
EBONY: Wow. Interesting. Ok, last question. In terms of professionals of color and gender, what is the difference between Black men and women in corporate America? And what can Black women do differently to become more competitive?
CO: I’ll start with the second question first. What I’ve found most effective, as a Black man moving up the [corporate] ladder is to seek out the people who were at the top of their game within the organization; typically those people happened to be Caucasian males. Women, Black women especially, tend to seek out other women to build a mentor relationship. While there is nothing wrong with that, I would suggest to a young Black woman to find a Caucasian male to be her mentor. And I say this because Caucasian males are in places in the organization and having conversations, regardless of ethnicity, that a woman is not privy to. This relationship can prove highly beneficial for Black women trying to be more competitive in corporate America.
EBONY: I think you’re on to something here, Dr. Odom.
CO: Also, we [Black professionals] need to be more forward with asking to connect with people. When you are in an organization, build your network to look like your bosses network. We [Black people] tend to build comfort zones instead of networks. Ask your boss who are the people you should be talking to, and seek to have coffee with them. When you do have that coffee, ask him/her the same thing and keep it going.
This says two things: 1. You are looking to build your network; which is key. 2. It allows your boss to have ownership over your relationships. See now, those people will go back to your boss and tell him/her how great you are, thereby making your boss look amazing for bringing you in.
EBONY: I am floored. Speechless. So this is the game?
CO: Yes, this is the game. And I didn’t learn it from us. I learned it from older Caucasian males…. Regardless of gender or race, we have to seek out those power brokers that will take you to places the people who look like you may not.
EBONY: Well, thank you for enlightening me this evening. This has been quite the conversation. It truly crosses many generations but I especially hope it helps your peers get unstuck.
CO: You are very welcome. It has been a pleasure. I hope so too.
Ebonie Johnson Cooper is a freelance writer and young philanthropist. Her energy can be read weekly on Friends of Ebonie. Her favorite food is food, ice cream and cheesecake. Home is Brooklyn, NY. Follow her on @EbsTheWay.