Helping Family Businesses
Prosper Across Generations®


Evolution of Our Work Ethic: From Workaholic to Zenployment?

By Kelly LeCouvie, Ph.D.

“I had to walk five miles to school, uphill both ways” is a rendition of a story you have likely heard before from a senior-generation family member. Times were tough and difficult sacrifices were made for both the family and the business.

Generation X and Y members acknowledge this contribution. Yet it should not deter them from an emergent philosophy of work that places a priority on work/life balance – a significant departure from the work ethic that has dominated baby boomers and prior generations.

A recent study in the U.K. found that nearly half of all workers in their 20s and 30s say that by their mid-40s they want to shift to more passionate careers and would happily opt for less money in order to make a difference to others. This is a trend that has been dubbed “zenployment.” Some have viewed this trend as an erosion of our work ethic.

In most cases, there are next-generation members willing to contribute to the family business. They are often smart, educated, capable and eager to embrace new opportunities. However, their pursuit of new opportunities often includes those found outside the realm of the business – possibly an environment not exposed much to the senior generation.

If you are a baby boomer, when you entered the business you might have been met with a “one size fits all” management style. You entered the business on the bottom rung and traveled along a career path that offered few options. Today, the absence of career options and flexibility in the traditional model may be perceived by Gen X/Yers as unacceptable. Employing this model could increase the risk of losing next-generation members.

The trends above suggest a need to examine ways in which your business might accommodate the multi-focused pursuits of these future leaders. Given that many family businesses are employing members of this generation (family or not), it is a trend that merits attention and may challenge our thinking on how best to respond to these needs.

Leadership styles have evolved over the last generation. We have seen a transition from individual, autocratic leadership styles to a more collaborative approach to managing businesses. Gen X/Yers have been exposed to team-based, inclusive environments and have a high comfort level with that style of decision making. This might be an opportunity to create a structure where leadership can be shared among family members who have interests and responsibilities outside the business that demand much attention. Shared leadership is fraught with challenges, but with careful planning and well-articulated objectives and roles, this structure can work successfully.

Career path development might incorporate opportunities that are nontraditional in terms of time frame, job design and hierarchical oversight.

Historically, the upward path for family members was based on a specific time period spent in selected roles. This approach may be unrealistic for new family employees who have diverse interests or who simply prefer to move through the organization with greater flexibility. Options include working on a part-time basis, structuring development in a way that permits short sabbaticals, or creating special projects or other opportunities to gain exposure to the business as a whole. In order for the business to accommodate this need, some jobs can be designed for job sharing, which requires cross-training and extensive information management. Sharing of information must be pervasive in a work environment of collective responsibilities. The technology created in large part by Generations X and Y facilitates this approach.

Many next-generation members have also shown a keen interest in crafting their own personal and career development plans. Involving them in the design of these plans can allow them to incorporate their preferences for fluid and flexible roles in the business. If this process ultimately results in an absence of accountability or unfulfilled responsibilities, then it is likely that the family employee is ill-suited to that work environment. However, if the family member commits to specific, agreed-upon goals and is able to realize planned objectives and milestones, it creates an environment that can satisfy the needs of the business and the individual. This model, which incorporates the structure of a career plan with the flexibility of career design, can meet the needs and expectations of current and next-generation members.

We know that businesses today are generally less hierarchical than in the past. At one time, the chain of command was very clear and not open to debate. Next-generation employees want to work in an environment that respects their individuality and permits lateral (versus top-down) communication and input. The collaborative, team-based environment discussed above supports this infrastructure. While this may imply a lack of accountability, it often reinforces it from multiple sources.

Not all businesses can accommodate such flexibility, particularly in smaller businesses where success might depend on a few senior people in full-time positions working long hours. The key is to understand the requirements of the business and the needs and desires of the next generation, and then a system can be crafted with the goal of meeting all of them. Involving next-generation members in creating the solution can be a win-win situation, empowering them, testing their creativity and problem-solving skills, and creating ownership and accountability for the solution.

Success in integrating Generation X and Y family members into the business depends on developing a mutually beneficial career path that addresses the distinct needs of that generation, while ensuring that the success factors of the business are not compromised. It represents a more complex structure and career design; however, it also creates new opportunities for innovation and growth in the business, which is a distinct departure from its history. One thing we know from observing many family businesses worldwide is that we cannot predict future success based on the past!





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