Every generation has made its distinct mark in corporate leadership.
The Baby Boomers (born in the 40s and 50s) led almost with an iron fist: traditional chain-of-command leadership, placing value on loyalty and stability. Generation X (born in the 60s and 70s) followed, with task-oriented, results-focused leaders. They created a strong separation of work from personal lives and groomed independent, self-motivated workers.
Millennials (born in the 80s and 90s) are next in line for leadership. As they come of age, what kind of leaders are they shaping up to be? And how can today’s leaders support and coach millennials in the succession pipeline?
The Millennial workforce
In "Mentoring Millennials," Harvard Business Review says that in four years, “Millennials will account for nearly half the employees in the world. In some companies, they already constitute a majority.” The millennials’ growing influence in the workforce introduced a shift in workplace mindsets and career expectations.
In contrast to Generation X, “Millennials view work as a key part of life, not a separate activity that needs to be “balanced” by it. For that reason, they place a strong emphasis on finding work that’s personally fulfilling.”
HBR shares that Millennials are in a hurry to advance their career progress. They do not hesitate to leave when companies offer little avenues for growth. Generation X found themselves in positions that required resilience for survival: “Because tough times have hit them hard throughout their careers and they’ve advanced more slowly into leadership positions that boomers lagged in vacating, gen-Xers are resilient,” Fast Company says, in "What Millennials and Boomers Can Learn from Gen X Managers."
Generation X take their growth as a personal responsibility, while Millennials expect their managers and company to pave the way for their progress. “They want a road map to success, and they expect their companies to provide it,” HBR says.
Millennials: naturally bent toward people
The task-oriented Generation Xers drew clear lines between work and personal lives, while Millennials place value on relationships at the workplace. “They want work to afford them the opportunity to make new friends, learn new skills, and connect to a larger purpose. That sense of purpose is a key factor in their job satisfaction; according to our research, they’re the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s,” HBR says.
In the work setting, they place greater value on developing soft skills and exhibit a desire to empower others.
“They seek to challenge and inspire their followers with a sense of purpose and excitement,” The Millennial Leadership Survey reports. “55% of millennials said that the most important leadership skill is the ability to build relationships, which 66% said was one of their strongest skills.”
Inheriting the VUCA world
Amidst Industry 4.0 and the rapid advancement of technology, we can hardly anticipate what new business realities Millennial leaders will be dealing with. For certain, they will be facing a host of new and more complex issues.
We are experiencing the dawn of Artificial Intelligence. Integrating such powerful technology into everyday business comes with ethical and moral issues future leaders will be grappling with.
Millennial leaders will be managing organisations with increased diversity—of culture, background, and ways of working. The global workforce and the growing gig economy are changing the way organisations operate. Leaders need to create and manage adaptable environments, to stay effective amidst major workplace shifts.
With the speed of change, the relevance of a product or business will be challenged day by day. Market shifts will occur with increasing frequency.
In the VUCA world, people are the only constant element. This volatile business landscape will demand high levels of agility and people management.
Preparing Millennials for leadership
How do we set Millennials up for success and harness their strengths as we prepare them for leadership?
Areas for development:
1. Perseverance and resilience
Millennials tend to expect quick success and have less propensity to stay put, to persevere and to dedicate years to hone a craft or discipline. They grew up in an age of endless options in which it is easy to become restless and difficult to find a niche to devote themselves to.
Generation X leaders can support Millennials by providing guidance and coaching them as they search for a purpose to commit to—not necessarily in their present company. Once they find their niche, Millennials will not hesitate to invest the time to work hard and grow. “Gross generalizations aside, many Millennials work very hard. They do make sacrifices, but they do it on their own terms,” Inc says, in "Some See Millennials as Lazy and Entitled."
Leaders can guide Millennials’ energy and passion into a direction that aligns with their values and beliefs.
Fast Company says that Gen-Xers, in their quest for work-life balance, are defined by efficiency, their ability to “get their work done, get out, go home, and spend time doing the things they love to do.”
Millennials aspire to work-life integration, where lines are blurred and they want it all “now”. Gen-Xers understand the need for trade-offs, sacrifices, and delayed gratification to achieve longer term goals. As Millennials embrace their idealism, Gen-X leaders can guide these younger talents to recognise realities better, to keep a firm eye on work goals, even while multi-tasking amidst competing priorities.
Harnessing their strengths:
1. Relational skills
With the increasingly volatile future, people become a company’s greatest asset and constant strength.
Leaders today are faced with the compounding challenges in innovation, talent retention, employee engagement, and business sustainability. These issues will only increase in complexity.
This means that Millennials’ inherent people-oriented, relational competencies will be key strengths in the VUCA world.
“The sharing economy is a millennial invention born out of their experience with a shortage of resources and the need to establish strong networks to thrive.” says Forward in21st Century Workplace Needs. “Millennials know how to share resources, time and ideas. They are team players. More so than any previous generation, they understand the power of collaboration.”
Leaders need to affirm these traits in Millennials and lean into their people-centric mindsets and harness their strengths to help build highly engaged teams.
Tomorrow’s leaders need to build trust with their teams. Trust will continue to be the currency of the workplace. Being able to create a safe place for their teams will help Millennial leaders prioritise building a culture that honours both people and results.
Millennials have the potential to be highly trusted and relationally competent leaders our future needs. To bring people through change in people-centred way will be key as organisations struggle through constant shifts.
Digital natives, Millennials are accustomed to the dizzying speed of technology and change. They have grown up expecting change, and are prepared to adapt, more so than their predecessors.
Deloitte’s Millennial Survey revealed that “Today’s market environment places a premium on speed, flexibility, and the ability to lead in uncertain situations.”
As organisations undergo transformation in response to disruption, the people aspect of change is often neglected. Research shows that Millennials are naturally bent towards taking a people-centred approach.
Millennials are naturally agile. Honing this quality in leadership development prepares the Millennial leader to face the unexpected challenges the future will bring, and to lead people effectively through challenges and change.
Empowering Millennials for leadership
“It’s time for leaders of organizations to stop debating the millennial problem, hoping that this supposedly exotic flock of sheep will get with the program,” McKinsey says, in Millennials: Burden, Blessing, or Both? Instead, they should see how questions and challenges from their youngest employees can spark action to help their companies change for the better... they are asking an important question: “Why does it have to be this way?” In the process of listening, leaders will soon realize that young people want the same things we all do.”
Millennials have proven their value and potential in the workplace. “Millennials today are looking for a cause to believe in—it’s not about financial gain anymore, especially because in Singapore, our society is wealthier as a whole,” ROHEI’s Chief Executive Rachel Ong said in A Deep Insight into the Award-Winning Work Culture at ROHEI, a feature by High Net Worth.
“So we show them our purpose, and how that adds value to society. We engage and promote millennials, and consciously let them know that we place our trust in them. One of our leaders in the largest arm is barely 30 years old. She became deputy head at around 27 or 28, because she is competent, reliable, and has low self-interest. She’s very good at her work and has a 57-year-old staff who reports to her. There is mutual respect between both of them.”
Today’s leaders have the opportunity to guide and empower Millennials as they pass the baton—to harness Millennials’ predisposition toward people-centred management, and to build their resilience towards a shared vision and purpose.
With leadership development focused on agility and relational competencies, Millennials will be well-prepared to take the helm of possibly one of the most challenging times in corporate history.