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Effective Leadership Strategies Across Generations

By Kevin Heikes, Director of Operations at FarmLink and
Kansas State University Master of Agribusiness (MAB) Alum


Recently I was asked about effective leadership strategies in today's workplace.  Initially, I was going to describe my goals and objectives in my team leadership experiences.  Upon further reflection, I decided I would structure this post to be, “Leadership strategies I appreciate and that have allowed me to do my best work.”


While I am technically GenX, many times I end up translating for both the Boomer generation and the GenY/Millennial generation.  For example, I enjoy sharing with Boomers how Hootsuite can turn 99% of Twitter chatter into meaningful customer insights.  Or sharing with a Millennial that they need to put down the phone and go shake the hand of their customer and engage in conversation.   


Some of the best leaders I have worked with/for seem to embody many of the same characteristics which will be described throughout this post.  In my nearly 20-year career, the leadership examples I reference most are based on the book, “First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman written in 1999.  This book outlines a list of questions to ask team members leading them to high performance engagement: 


  • Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work?
  • At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
  • In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  • Does someone at work seem to care about me as a person?
  • Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
  • At work, does my opinion seem to count?
  • Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
  • Are my co-workers are committed to doing quality work?
  • Do I have a friend at work?
  • In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
  • In the last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?


I have simplified this to three favorite questions I like to ask team members:

  • Are you learning and growing?
  • Are you having fun?
  • Are you leaving the company/role better today than you found it yesterday?


Using these ideas as a beginning framework, below are 13 ways I believe I can be a better leader in today’s workplace.  While these are principles I am personally working on through my leadership style, I thought it might be helpful to share with others. 


DIY (Do it yourself) first. Don't delegate something you don't understand – The clearer we can be on project goals and requirements, the better the outcome.  I am reminded of a CRM redesign project in which it was imperative I understood the system inside and out before asking a team member to lead the redesign.  My role turned from doer to collaborator.  I found that while the result of the project was not exactly how I initially envisioned it, the combined project was higher quality.  Had I said, “go build a new CRM system” and I hadn’t ever used it, I wouldn’t know how to lead the next iteration of the project.     


Rally a team versus a cause – Anytime we can get a team rallied around an initiative and working together, the faster we get results.  The reality is that sometimes the relationship is more important than the outcome.  Years ago, while at a small AgTech startup, we had an idea to text out grain bids when the markets rallied.  As soon as we sent the first message out, the phone lines lit up!  The team came together, executed outside of our job descriptions and everyone pitched in to take phone calls and talk to the customer.  We received hundreds of calls in the first hour.  From the CEO to the most introverted software developer, we all turned to customer support in those hectic days because we were cause-driven, not job description-driven. 


Work smarter, not harder – In today’s work environment, it is important to spend time on the front end developing a strategy to focus on important things, rather than just doing “stuff” to stay busy.  I remember 1am nights at the .com office early in my career.  I would work in circles doing “stuff” that ended up being irrelevant, but because I was at the office, I thought I was contributing.  My goal years later is to focus on one or two relevant tasks per day and to do those well.  Quality over quantity is now my goal.   


Be present – Being accessible to answer quick questions can speed up project work.  This presence also supports ideas referenced earlier from “First, Break All The Rules,” such as encouraging development, monitoring nonverbal communication and building relationships outside the project. 


Be intentional with communication styles – There are many times when one email turns into 40 emails that could have been addressed with a five-minute phone call.  We must always ask, “What is the right tool for a specific message?” and “How quickly does the message need to be delivered?”  Is this a phone call, a slack message, text or email?  While there is no exact science to “tool selection,” we start to learn which method is most effective for the message recipient. 


My “Boomer” style comes out when I receive an IM (Instant Message).  For years, I have fought the urge to just call up the software engineer when he/she sends me an IM.  I would rather give my entire thought process to the engineer verbally, but I realize that is not what he/she WANTS or needs.  The engineer is in the zone and desires quick, concise feedback.  My phone call would only hinder the flow. 


Meetings vs Stand-ups – For whatever reason, when a meeting is scheduled, the default time is one hour (thank you Microsoft Outlook?).  We are all conditioned to this 1-hour mentality and then Parkinson's law takes effect: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”  Realizing this is a generalization, there are times when more frequent shorter sessions can be more effective. 


Tools have and will continue to evolve – Selection of the correct tool can make all the difference to a team and project.  A recent work example illustrates this point.  The decision was made to move from Microsoft Project to an online tool called Wrike.  Both tools organize projects and timelines, but one is web-based and offers real-time updates while the other is a traditional software install and harder to collaborate in real-time.  Taking the time to select a tool that all team members can engage with is key to today’s communication. 


Office Design/Setup – There are times when working with groups on software development or projects it is more effective to be located in an open space.  Obviously this isn’t effective or realistic for all situations, but I have witnessed an open floor plan with many white/scrum boards leading to open communication and higher quality work.  Much of today’s work is agile in nature requiring quick interactions and iterations.  Offices and walls can slow down this type of work. 


On the other hand, when I do sit in a bullpen, there are times when I need to lock myself up and think.  In these situations, we must know what type of environment works best for the work that is most important, which leads to my next principle. 


Work isn’t just done in an office – Everyday our world gets more virtual.  Team members work from home, customers are mobile and we continually adapt to a more global workforce.  From this standpoint, tools such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, Join.Me, Google Hangouts, or Skype require skills that every team member must possess.  I personally find team member engagement and communication quality increase dramatically when communication moves beyond a conference call to include a screen share and additional visual elements.  


Work is no longer just 9 to 5 –  God bless Dolly Parton, but most of us no longer have a 9 to 5 gig.  For example, I do my best and most creative thinking early in the morning.  I subscribe to many of the philosophies of Jeff Sanders’ “5am Miracle” podcast and start my morning with deep thinking and writing.  By the time I get to the office around 8am, I have my day planned and my strategic thinking completed so I can move into execution mode.


Embrace the outside passions of team members – In one of my more recent teams, a couple of team members and I engaged in Fitbit challenges together.  These are weekly challenges in which the objective is to get the most activity steps.  This was a fun and healthy exercise and it brought us together with a common interest beyond the project.  This type of engagement is a great way to build morale and longevity in the project/company.   


Be authentic in workplace relationships – On Monday mornings, how many times do we all fall back on the “how was your weekend?” question???   That is fine, but if we truly want team members to know that we care about them as people, we must be willing to be vulnerable and talk beyond the kid’s soccer game and the weather.  Trust is difficult and can be complicated among teams.  I am currently studying the book, “Trustology,” written by my friend and colleague, Richard Fagerlin. 


Seek to be a lifelong learner – Finally, I have learned from my mentors and leaders that the best leaders keep learning.  You are never there…there is no “There”.  Every day we must read, listen to podcasts or open our minds to new ideas. 


One way to continue learning is to earn an advanced degree like the Kansas State University Master of Agribusiness. The MAB program is an award-winning master’s degree designed for food, agribusiness, and animal health professionals offered through a combination of distance and on-campus sessions that makes it convenient for those who would like to obtain graduate-level business and economics training while continuing their career. The MAB program is currently taking applications our January and August 2017 cohorts. To find out how you can be a part of the K-State Master of Agribusiness program or for more information on how the MAB can help your career, please go to, call 785-532-4495 or e-mail


I leave us with an Albert Einstein quote, “When you stop learning you start dying.”


For more insights on Leadership Strategies Across Generations, attend a free webinar on September 29 at noon, CST. Register online at