Building leaders in the Millennial Generation

A pivotal demographic shift in the work force is now under way, one with major implications for leadership development.

The so-called Millennial generation – those born between 1980 and 2000 – are entering the work force in vast numbers. By 2020, the estimated number of working millennials will reach 70 million, far more than Generation X – holding steady at 50 million – and the Baby Boomers, declining to 40 million.

In addition to large numbers, this group has several characteristics that differentiate it from older workers. According to the Pew Research Center, racial demographics in this group are the most diverse of any previous generation, with 43 percent non-white.

These young adults are also getting married later, with only 26 percent entering matrimony between ages 18 and 32. They are the best-educated generation to date, with about a third of older millennials holding a college degree. Having a college education has become increasingly important for these employees, since many entered the workplace during the recession of 2007, which only widened the income gap at different education levels.

Another obvious characteristic is their familiarity with technology. They are the first generation raised with the Internet and cell phones. This comfort level with the digital realm has resulted in a generational leadership role in adopting new technology, including social media and mobile applications.

As a result, their preferred social outlets have shifted from traditional organizations to online networks of peers, colleagues and affinity groups. This has implications for the way they work and the environments where they feel most comfortable.

With such a large cohort on the horizon, it makes sense to figure out now how best to cultivate and groom the next group of leaders. In fact, according to a 2014 survey by Virtuali and the New Leaders Council, just over half of millennials are already in leadership positions, with about 40 percent having four or more direct reports.

Even those not officially working in a management role regard themselves as leaders, with 96 percent aspiring to lead in their careers at some point. Alarmingly, 60 percent of all respondents received less than 10 hours of leadership training over the past twelve months. Many are apparently filling leadership roles with little or no preparation.

When asked how they prefer to be led, there were many similarities between millennials and older groups. Across the generations, employees want “participative, team-oriented, human-oriented and charismatic” leaders.

Hierarchical or authoritarian approaches to managing workers are definitely out of favor. These trends have been brewing in the workplace for decades, based on management theories that emphasized teamwork and input from employees. Study after study has found an engaged work force is happier, more productive and more committed.

This interactive approach is especially important to retain millennials, since they have low expectations of working at one company for life. In their own careers – marked by short tenures and turnover – they tend to consider their personal growth ahead of working their way up through the ranks. They find it easier to go after title changes and salary increases by changing jobs.

In addition, the quality of their work life is key. In general, Millennials favor experiences over accumulating possessions, and this in turn affects how they prefer to learn. Despite familiarity with online tools and e-classes, most prefer hands-on methods and collaboration with peers and managers. They would rather be coached than mentored, since coaching encourages them to formulate their own solutions.

Millennials value leaders who are “people-centric,” who cultivate relationships and provide experience-based opportunities and new challenges. In the Virtuali survey, participants ranked communication, ability to build relationships and ability to develop others as the most critical leadership skills.

When asked to rank their own skills, over half – 64 percent – feel unprepared to lead or manage others. Not only do they believe they lack the expertise to develop others, they self-report a shortfall in technical and industry expertise. Some of this is probably due to their relative lack of long-term work experience.

Millennial employees are eager to become leaders and learn the necessary skills. Many companies can benefit from thoughtfully creating a program that meets the needs of this employee pool. Involving millennial employees in the design and implementation of this program would be an excellent way to demonstrate understanding of this group’s needs and preferences. – Elizabeth Penney, M.B.A.

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