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Gen X leaders: Stuck beneath the Boomer ceiling?

Tammy Erickson
Tammy Erickson is the author, most recently, of What Next, Gen X? Keeping Up, Moving Ahead and Getting the Career You Want. She writes an online column for the Harvard Business Review.

Members of Generation X, those born roughly in the 1960's and 1970's, are in a delicate situation today. They're sandwiched between two large generations at work - the Boomers and the Y's - one group staying longer than anyone expected and the other eager to step in.

For X'ers, achieving success at this point in your career, on your terms, and by your definition can benefit in this difficult environment from a conscious strategy. Here are ten tips for breaking through the Boomer Ceiling before you hit the Gen Y floor:

1. Play to your strengths. Perhaps the single most important thing at this point in your career is to do more of what you do best. Earlier, it made sense to try a bit of everything and push to improve in areas of weakness. Now, you owe yourself the returns that come from focusing for maximum advantage.

2. Reinforce your "brand." Choose activities outside work that develop the image you want to convey. For example, volunteer for the school building committee, if you're good at managing projects, or for the local arts organization's long range strategy committee, if strategy is your strength. Gain broader experience but, more importantly, conversational ways to reinforce your capabilities and interests at work.

3. Create the context for success. Surround yourself with people you need to do your work well. Collaboration is highly dependent on the existence of trust-based relationships. People have to recognize common values and goals before they're likely to share what they know, bring new insights into the discussion, and reach across organizational boundaries. Invest in relationship-building.

4. Raid the candy store. Even in difficult times, corporations have some wonderful assets. Take full advantage of all yours has to offer. Even if salaries are frozen, ask for development of all types: a fresh assignment, a job that will teach you a critical skill, exposure to people you can learn from, and training in robust processes and methodologies. Identify other things the company can provide: travel opportunities, funding for investments, benefits that cover your family, support for causes you care about, or a chance to get away through a paid or unpaid sabbatical.

5. Change the rules. Plot your next move against the value chain (not necessarily up the hierarchy). Take the task you normally do one step further in terms of value added. Add an analysis and recommendation to your original work. Over time, delegate your original task to another. Obsolete yourself. Change the rules of your department or group by becoming a boundary spanner--someone who interacts effectively with other groups inside or outside the firm, sharing knowledge and insights in ways that bring new thinking and perspectives to your activities.

6. Influence the Boomers. Need I say, don't assume Boomers will automatically have insight into your priorities? Never be surprised if your Boomer boss doesn't think the way you do. Take the initiative to communicate exactly what you want clearly.

7. Influence the organization. Success in business is not about having the most brilliant answer. It's about having a workable solution--and that requires developing a really good understanding of the unwritten rules of the organization. Figure out who and what really matters to become more persuasive and effective.

8. Take initiative. Whenever you hear yourself thinking "Why doesn't someone. . . ?"--consider whether it might be possible to do it yourself. Take responsibility for making your firm a better place--a more engaging the work environment. Offer constructive suggestions and express the willingness to do the work required to put new programs in place.

9. Do what you've committed to do first. This is the important corollary to taking initiative. Never assume that taking on a new project, even one that is useful and important, excuses falling short on your original objectives. If taking on the new initiative will prevent you from completing your current assignment well, re-negotiate your objectives first.

10. Leverage your network to expand your options. One of Generation X's strongest characteristics--and best source of future options--is the network of friends you've formed and maintained. The benefits of being part of this broader community are substantial, often leading to a mushrooming of possibilities in your career. Continue exploring alternatives, even as you make the most of where you are today.

By Tammy Erickson

 |  February 9, 2010; 6:52 AM ET |  Category:  Career Management Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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