Calling the Next Generation of Millennial Leaders

There is no denying that millennials have different ideas compared to prior generations about what is important to business leaders. The implication is that developing and retaining millennial leaders requires a new set of strategies.
— By Dave Desouza

It is hard to believe, but the oldest millennials are now 37 years old, and the youngest are 22 years old and entering the full-time workforce. The older persons of this generation are already in or moving into leadership positions, and many have their eye on achieving upper management and executive positions. Among the rest of the millennials are the future leaders, some already being groomed to advance in their careers.

Millennials have some goals that are similar to the goals of all employed people – financial security, work-life balance and meaningful work. However, they have a different perspective about the role of business, and that means they have a different perspective on the role of business leaders. Millennial leaders place importance on ethical leadership, employee engagement, giving people opportunities to grow in their jobs, and environmental and social sustainability. Business sustainability is important, of course, but not at any cost to people, communities and the environment.

Developing millennials to become the next generation of leaders requires understanding their perspectives and goals in order to offer blended development opportunities that incorporate their perspectives and values while developing the leadership skills needed for business sustainability.

Leading Others to Empowerment
Millennials want to lead, but in that desire is found the first difference between their leadership goals and the goals of traditional leaders. Millennials want to become leaders so they can empower others. That was the result of a survey of millennials conducted several years ago by Virtuali, a leadership training consulting firm, and WorkplaceTrends.com, an advisory membership firm assisting Human Resources professionals.

The survey found millennials seek leadership positions because it gives them opportunities to help others succeed and enables them to be transformational. They said that communication is the most important leadership skill, and the ability to build relationships is a crucial skill. Surveyed millennials believed organizations are not doing enough social good. They want mentors, access to learning online and flatter organizations. Millennials also admitted they have weak industry and technical skills.

Clearly, millennials have a different view of leadership and its responsibilities. They believe in inclusive leadership and disapprove of authoritarian leaders. They want to have access to business leaders at all levels, turning the traditional employee-manager interactions into learning experiences in building trust in order to reach business goals. The young current and potential leaders believe in transparency, collaboration, giving all people a voice, and diversity and inclusion.

Closing the Gap
There is a wide gap between traditional leadership styles and the favored leadership style of millennials. Closing the gap requires new approaches to leadership development.

In the past, employees considered to be high-potential leadership prospects were sent to expensive seminars and workshops to develop their skills. Today, millennials want on-the-job experiential learning that flows from managers who give them work that has goals but allows the employee autonomy in meeting those goals.

During the process, the manager and employee share information in a two-way feedback system. Some older managers struggle to understand the new leadership style and are at risk of falling back into the authoritarian style of giving orders. It is not easy to find a balance between providing direct instruction and orders without dampening creativity and motivation. Managers should mentor millennials but also accept reverse mentoring opportunities.

Of course, millennials also want to use technology for development opportunities. They want 24/7 mobile and remote access to development opportunities that include things like gamification and simulations based on real-world situations. This enables managers to monitor employee learning and skills development. Many organizations have internal communication systems enabling employees to communicate with managers at any time or to collaborate with colleagues across the organization. Attending a webinar with global employees prepares employees to lead a diverse organization.

Role of the Future CEO
One of the most interesting results of a survey conducted by American Express is that millennial leaders believe the CEO role will significantly change. The survey found that millennials value creativity, autonomy and reciprocity as critical to future leadership, and seven-out-of-10 said they do aspire to executive positions.

Over a third also believe the CEO will be irrelevant in its current form. Millennials will advance in their careers and bring their new perspectives and expectations with them, changing executive leadership formats through an evolutionary process.

To develop millennials as managers and executives, organizations need to focus on developing hard and soft skills. Hard skills are the more traditional skills, and they remain critical to success. They were once enough for a business leader to succeed, and that is no longer true. Hard skills are the technical skills and include abilities like strategic planning and economic analysis. They also include making difficult decisions, like selling a business unit or laying off employees. Soft skills are focused on things like team building, inclusiveness, empathy, projecting values and openness.

Blending the two leads to a leadership development process that addresses the changes in the workplace that take place. For example, a hard skill is knowing how to use technology to complete work assignments. A soft skill is learning how to help others balance the use of technology so it is not all-consuming. A millennial CEO is likely to be the person who shows up in the employee breakroom to meet people and also uses technology as a communication tool for relationship building, and connecting with global employees. The future millennial CEO will visit overseas factories and farm fields to meet employees and community members to personally verify the company is adhering to its mission and values.

Paying Attention to Millennials
It is imperative to not ignore the differences in millennial perspectives and their stated development needs. There are two reasons.

One, of course, is that development efforts are likely to fall short, and that will lead to turnover. Trying to develop millennials to fit the old leadership style is counter-productive. Other companies will lure the high-potential people to their organizations, offering them the kind of development opportunities sought.

The other reason is that the millennials have a people-perspective. Older managers who want to engage their staff members will need to find common ground and develop emotional intelligence.