business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

In the middle of a national storm of unemployment and underemployment, it’s easy to lose sight of the long-term reality that most companies could run short of talented people. And fast.

Incredibly, that makes it really important for all of us to keep an eye on the Florida Marlins baseball team this year. But since the Marlins have trouble drawing fans in their own neighborhood, let’s explain why they suddenly matter to you.

Demographics are pretty straight forward. We know today what the working population will look like in 10 or 20 years because those people are already born. The reality is this: as the enormous Post-World War II baby boomers retire, they’ll leave a massive leadership gap in their wake. In virtually every company today, boomers dominate leadership positions and not just in the executive suite. Think about middle managers, store managers and more.

The boomer generation is so large (and I’m square in the middle of it) that we filled up jobs the way we overloaded maternity wards and schools in our youth. So as we leave the workforce, we’ll leave a vacuum behind. Again the demographic reality is simple: the baby bust following the boom (people born from 1964 to 1979) doesn’t contain near enough people to replace the boomers. And the generation with the numbers to fill the gap - Generation Y - is just at the start of its career.

That’s why companies today have to start thinking about future leaders and start recruiting and training with an eye toward a coming shortage.

Which takes us back to the Florida Marlins. Two weeks ago, in the midst of a lengthy losing streak, the Marlins’ manager quit. To replace him, the team picked a manager from its past, 80-year-old Jack McKeon. That hiring raises a series of questions about the importance of succession planning because it defies belief that a baseball team didn’t have a list of potential replacement candidates on staff. But let’s ignore that issue for a second and ponder this:

Can a man who was born in 1931 successfully manage baseball players who are more than 50 years his junior? Consider that not one member of the team was alive when McKeon got his first managerial job in 1973.

Think about the cultural gulf between McKeon and his players. Although he managed within the last 10 years, he’s now in charge of a workforce that in no way can share the values of his upbringing during the Great Depression and World War II. His players are diverse in ways he’s likely never experienced and are hooked to technologies that didn’t exist just a few years ago.

But that’s no reason he won’t succeed and that’s why he bears watching. The challenge McKeon and so many managers both face today is understanding a workforce that is so different than us. Not necessarily better or worse, nor smarter or dumber. Just different. It’s a workforce that grew up with different experiences, expectations and needs. It’s a workforce that frequently looks and acts differently too. Yet many managers have learned they can reach this group with clear expectations, fairness and loads of open communication. Stories about the dues that were paid in 1950, 1970 or 1990 are meaningless; relevant experiences work better.

McKeon’s case may be extreme, but increasingly managers will find themselves working with more generations than ever including both old and young. The challenge will be finding a way to handle it all and produce results. So it will be interesting to see how McKeon’s team plays and relates to the new skipper.

Luckily we get some more great words of advice elsewhere in baseball.

Retired player Mookie Wilson was asked about Davey Johnson, his manager from nearly 30 years ago, who just yesterday took over the helm of the Washington Nationals. Wilson said, “Things have changed and the game has changed a little bit. But good managers learn to adjust.”

Useful words for any manager, in baseball or business. Good managers learn to adjust and for the future of their companies, nothing will be more important.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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