On Millennials and Leadership: A New Mindset

The first Millennial college graduates entered the workforce in the summer of 2004. They will continue to do, in large number, until around 2022.

We have been dubbed the “Greatest Generation”, armed with the tools and inclination to drive toward a better future in a world facing economic, geopolitical, and environmental crises.

Other people have dubbed us as the “Generation Whine”, because we have been so over-indulged and protected that we are incapable of handling even the most mundane task without someone holding our hand. And yet, I still wonder whether we are really very different from other generations, or if the generational gap and all the media hype it has generated have simply created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In this article I will explore the ways in which college-educated members of the Millennial generation approach the world of work, especially in the context of their particular relationships with technology and institutions. Moreover I will look at how competency-based talent-management can help create an organizational culture that appeals to young job seekers and employees.

Millennials are a mix of typically youthful and unique generational traits. They tend to be more risk-tolerant and less safety-conscious. They’re also less likely to have family obligations, which means they prioritize upward mobility over job security. We are also known for being generally more idealistic than pragmatic, so we tend to gravitate towards companies with clear values and a purpose we can relate to.

The data regarding the Millennial generation and their values and beliefs is abundant.  For the past ten years hundreds of surveys have been conducted that have detailed the attitudes, aspirations, as well as the societal and organizational impressions of thousands of young people. Depending on the definition and operationalisation of the questions asked in these surveys, the data can go both ways. It can either support the theory that Millennials are fundamentally unique compared to other generations, or, alternately, it can also support the view that our perspectives fall nicely along a continuum, meaning the data potentially shows the similarities to our generational predecessors.

Recent data has shown that, despite conventional wisdom of Millennials, we do not appear to be any more altruistic, family-oriented, or motivated to succeed than those who have preceded us, nor are we any less concerned with making money.

However, our relationship with technology has changed the way we know the world. For this reason, managing, directing, and motivating Millennials is not only a challenge, but an opportunity and a learnable skill.

Two icons of the millennial lifestyle, cell phones and online social networks, also grew up alongside our generation. The world’s first commercial cellular phone, weighing almost a whole kilo, was introduced when members of the high school class of 2000 were celebrating their first birthdays: The iPhone emerged as they celebrated their 25th birthday. MySpacewas developed in 2003 and Facebook, created by then-Harvard student and millennial Mark Zuckerberg and originally designed for only his Ivy League peers, was launched in 2004, as the first Millennial class prepared to graduate from college.

Since these technologies are homegrown to us Millennials, we are often referred to as “digital natives”, while our parents’ generation lived at least part of their lives prior to the development of the Internet and its marginal devices, making them the “digital immigrants”. It is therefore interesting to examine what value this native familiarity might add to companies as they hire Millennials. Don Tapscott, author of Grown up Digital, has interviewed thousands of members of what he dubs as the “Net Generation” and believes that digital immersion has, quite literally, caused this age group to be wired differently. In addition, UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small has mapped actual changes in neural circuitry that develop with the acquisition and repetition of technological skills. In plain English, Small’s research shows a significant difference in brain functions among generations, a difference he defines as the “brain gap”. Let me illustrate this definition with an example. Digital natives are more effective in some arenas, like multitasking, responding to visual stimulation, and filtering information, but less adapt in terms of face-to-face interaction and deciphering non-verbal cues (Tapscott, 2009). Even though these pathways can be developed later in life, and there are clearly many awesome avid developers and users of the latest technologies in every generation, a marked neurological difference does exist between embracing it and embodying it. What I mean is, a brain that developed prior to the emergence of word processing, email, the web, or social networks must adapt to new technologies in order to use them effectively. On the other hand, Millennials who have been hard wired by technology and for whom it is integral to their academic, social, and personal lives, don’t think about adaptation at all; technology for us is a sixth sense.

So based on our experiences, us Millennials have every reason to assume that all necessary information can be gathered with the touch of a button on a 24/7/365 basis. If we are asked to investigate a topic, we turn to Google (Wikipedia is the weapon of choice for others). If we need raw market data, we are able to instantly access extended social networks and obtain immediate feedback. Most Millennials believe that virtually every scholarly or academic article ever written will be available to the instantly and without cost, we we certainly have little tolerance for claims of ownership or demands for rent.

There seems to be two viewpoints on this particular generational competency, which in turn present an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, Millennials seem to be blissfully unaware that most online sources rarely adhere to any standards of accuracy and validity. When a quick answer is readily available, most Millennials lack the motivation to seek a more nuanced one, and by failing to diligently follow a path of inquiry, they miss out on potential perspectives that would enable them to evaluate the analysis of others.

While it is true that, in most classrooms,  Millennials are taught to understand the difference between reliable, verifiable data and editorialized content, daily search-and-retrieve behaviors may be too ingrained to overcome.

On the other hand, us Millennials have developed unique abilities as fluent visual thinkers who are extraordinarily gifted at scanning and multi-tasking.

These two viewpoints about general competencies present a somewhat interesting dilemma. Our fast-paced business arena often requires immediacy, including the ability to efficiently retrieve and communicate concise, simplified information. Yet, the complexity of organizations and the environments in which they operate simply demands a more careful, informed framework for analysis and understanding. It seems like we are more focused on finding work that continually offers new challenges compared to young people in previous generations. Instead of a fancy title, prestige, and perks, Millennials want to do work that is meaningful- something that’s bigger than them.

And while we take our work and our careers very seriously, we are not willing to sacrifice quality of life for job success. We tend to seek a work-life balance that enables us to commit fully to meaningful work.

Competencies for Millennial Success

So how can organizations continue to not only attract but also retain this restless, ambitious new workforce? A competency-based approach to talent management can do wonders to help facilitate a shift towards a more Millennial-friendly culture. In the next section I briefly mention the important of three competencies: core competencies, job-specific competencies, and leadership competencies.

  1. Core Competencies:

One of the key Millennial attributes, highlighted in Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report was the need to be part of something bigger than themselves. In a world where more than half of the workforce is inspired by a sense of a deeper mission, core competencies can be extremely transformative. Core qualities define the key values and strengths shared by the entire organization, and they become part of every employee’s job profile. Moreover, by showing how a particular job, at every level, helps make the organization great, core competencies help Millennials feel connected to the bigger picture.

2. Job-specific competencies

These competencies definitely have a role to play in engaging and retaining. Everything from skills, knowledge, abilities, to motivations, traits and behaviors required for specific jobs within the organization. A global PwC study concluded that career progression was a top priority among Millennials- ahead of compensation and any other consideration.

In practice, competency-based career development programs enable organizations to align job competencies with targeted learning opportunities, which in turn, enable Millennials to identify areas for improvement. Furthermore, competency-driven career development defines the competencies and proficiency levels for every job in the organization, identifying the training path required to achieve different competency levels. It is an approach that provides Millennials the tools they need to visualize their career options, making career progression a more transparent, accessible, and self-directed process.

Keep in mind that Millennials are picky in terms of learning resources. A way to further align career development with Millennial needs, is to make sure these learning resources reflect their technological preferences. It is widely known that Millennials prefer tech-driven aids over traditional, face-to-face learning. An example would be the self-paced e-learning, which offers flexible, unstructured engagements that enables Millennials to fit learning into their busy schedules.

3. Leadership competencies

Millennials have a different way of looking at leadership. Traditional markers of effective leadership include personal dynamism and powerful networks. According to a survey conducted by PwC, “visible” “well-networked”, and “technically skilled” leaders score low among Millennials. In contrast, qualities such as being “inspirational”, “personable”, and “visionary” were at the top of the list. It is therefore no wonder: Millennials tend to value the team over the individual and focus primarily on validation, recognition and support. The ideal type is thus a leader capable of bringing the organization together inject a sense of purpose, and acknowledging group efforts is the perfect fit for our value-driven and recognition-seeking generation. In this way, Millennials are most likely to gravitate towards leaders that are focused on people and purpose rather than profit maximization alone.

It is a done deal. Our workforce is changing, and the way we define leadership needs to change with it. Workplaces are filling up with high-potential, high-expectation Millennials who in turn bring an array of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas. However, without the right leadership to nurture and retain them, they won’t stay long.