The Next Generation of Leaders

As the younger workforce moves into higher-level roles, generational leadership differences provide insight into where leadership development should focus.
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The face of leadership is starting to shift. According to “Global Generations,” a study conducted by accounting firm EY, 62 percent of millennial employees are managing others — only slightly less than the 65 percent of Generation X employees who are managers.

As younger employees move into more powerful positions, it’s important to consider how their leadership styles compare with those who came before them. Are they the virtually the same or dramatically different? How can we best help them grow as business leaders?

Collaboration and Connection: The Millennial Way?

Adrian Ridner, CEO and co-founder of Study.com, a website providing online courses for college credit, said that different generational leadership styles are a result of specific values. Millennials tend to focus more on collaboration and flexibility, according to Ridner. While previous generations preferred to work “in silos,” millennial leaders take in “a variety of ideas and viewpoints to influence the process.”

“We want to talk things through — it’s not ‘me, the leader’; it’s ‘we,’ ” said Grant Findlay-Shirras, CEO of neighborhood news site ParkBench.com. This collaborative process allows for more creativity. Findlay-Shirras said millennial leaders are much more likely to challenge the status quo.

For ParkBench.com, that means mixing the business with the personal. Rather than separating the two, Findlay-Shirras said the people he works with are also the people he hangs out with, “taking the idea of culture, teamwork and family to a new level.”

According to Ridner, these values result in millennial leaders who are more understanding and caring when it comes to their employees’ needs.

“They value forming personal relationships and giving their employees the flexibility to have proper work-life balance,”said Ridner. “As millennial leaders invest more in their employees, retention is bound to improve.”

Susan Weiss, a director at The Boeing Co. and member of the millennial generation, thinks there’s more to it than that. Weiss said she sees strong value in “allowing team members to bring their whole self to work” among leaders of all generations. In general, she said that different leadership styles are much more complicated than generational differences.

“I’m a firm believer that our own leadership styles, no matter our generation, are formed by our personal experiences, and to relate it solely to generational differences is an oversimplification,” Weiss said.

Findlay-Shirras said that good leaders, regardless of generation, share a desire to motivate and inspire their employees. And though there may be more mediums through which to inspire people, such as social media, the goal is the same.

Ridner agreed, saying that the best leaders, “motivate their teams to do the best work possible and achieve the best outcomes.”

However, for millennial leaders, Ridner said part of that best work comes from allowing employees to fail. They’re more likely to do this, he said, not only because they were brought up in a culture where failure was more acceptable, but because it allows them to tap into that creativity, collaboration and flexibility to problem-solve.

“While previous generations tend to avoid failure, millennial leaders like to test new ideas and learn from any failures,” said Ridner.

Problems with Authority

Although traits and values like collaboration and flexibility can elevate millennials as leaders, that may also mean overlooking their own position and authority as a leader.

“While millennials are great collaborators and caring leaders, they should work on being more direct with their teams and establishing authority,” said Ridner.

Unlike previous generations, Findlay-Shirras said that millennials avoid conflict, particularly face-to-face conflict, as to not hurt personal relationships. Often the conflict they fear is hypothetical.

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“You have so much stimulus in your head, your mind can get creative about all the things that might happen if something else happens, which is not a good thing because now you’re overthinking,” said Findlay-Shirras.

This shortcoming may be related to the fact that 45 percent of millennial managers have never gone through formal management training, according to a 2017 national study by Ultimate Software. Compared with the nearly 75 percent of baby boomers who were formally trained, this could account for differences — and sometimes weaknesses — in management style.

According to the “2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey,” which shares data from nearly 7,700 millennials from 29 countries, less than 27 percent of millennials believe they have strong leadership skills. Additionally, though both Findlay-Shirras and Ridner saw motivation as a key similarity between leaders of different generations, according to the Ultimate Software data report, only 44 percent of employees believe their managers know how to motivate the team.

Bridging the Gaps

To help millennials embrace and improve their leadership capabilities, Ridner said training managers should focus on succession planning. Current training and leadership programs aren’t working because they aren’t designed with the millennial in mind; they tend to be filled with long instructor-led sessions and digital lessons.

“It’s important to understand that while previous generations depended on their companies to provide a guided career path, millennials are much more self-directed in terms of career progression,” Ridner said. “They’re the driving force of their own careers and will proactively seek out learning and development opportunities — they won’t wait for those opportunities to be presented to them.”

Because millennials are accustomed to instant access to information, “Bite-sized content that is available anytime, anywhere helps learners retain concepts and fits into millennials’ on-the-go lifestyle,” he said.

Ridner also said that future leaders need to work with different generational leaders “so they can combine their strengths and prepare for future management positions.”

“Effective digital trainings combined with on-the-job experiences with current leaders is the best way to prepare millennials for future leadership positions,” said Ridner.

Similarly, Weiss sees mentorship as a crucial component to leadership development. However, she sees it less as a millennial need and more as a general leadership need.

“Mentoring and coaching play a huge role in any great leader’s development journey — millennials are no different,” she said. “We need to be comfortable reaching out to each other and to leaders from across generations as we grow our own skill sets.”

Although there are certainly generational differences and a need to rethink leadership development, Weiss said it’s important for that overhaul to go beyond merely analyzing millennial leaders and to “use generational data archetypes as a lens to assess our own behaviors and reactions rather than as a method to classify others.

“When we use that data introspectively, we allow ourselves to have a better understanding of who we are and why we respond the way we do,” Weiss said.

Marygrace Schumann is a writer in the Chicago area and former editorial intern at Talent Economy. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io. 

This article originally appeared in Talent Economy‘s sister publication Chief Learning Officer.