Millennial Leaders: Are Organizations Ready?


By Bernadette Smith

Millennials are a unique and mysterious bunch. Just when you think you’re finally making progress on figuring out how to manage and motivate Millennials in the workplace, you realize that they’re poised to be our future leaders. In fact, they’re already moving into leadership roles at a rapid rate.

With four to five diverse generations working together, are organizations prepared for the impact that the new Millennial style of leadership will have in the workplace? Driven to make a difference, you can bet that this generation will rewrite the rules of management and how we work.

Millennials born in the early-80’s and later are the fastest growing generation and as of this year, they will outnumber baby boomers in the workforce. Many of them are being promoted before their time to fill leadership gaps created by retiring Baby Boomers. They bring a different set of values and expectations that influence the dynamics of how we communicate and collaborate in the workplace. Millennials are an influential generation and, as leaders, through sheer numbers their values and attitudes have the power to create a shift in culture that we haven’t seen since the Boomer era.

Who are Millennials? And what do they value in the workplace?
This Gen Y group is defined as ambitious, achievement oriented, tech-savvy, collaborative and confident. Their management style is a reflection of their personalities and their values, beliefs and attitudes formed from their life experiences to date. They strive to make a meaningful difference in the workplace and will challenge traditional leadership practices that are no longer relevant.

Millennial leaders are all about creating a more rewarding work environment. In their book Manager 3.0, Brad Karsh and Courtney Templin identify 5 core values, identified below, that Millennials live by and are integrating in their workplace.

  • Collaboration: ‘We’re in This Together Finding Creative Solutions to Tough Problems’
  • Flexibility: Openness to How and When the Job Gets Done
  • Transparency: Being ‘In the Know’ Enable the Contribution of Ideas Toward Creating Solutions
  • Casual: ‘Just Be Yourself’ Less Formal Work Style
  • Balanced: Successful at Work and Life as a Whole is More Fulfilling

Overall, Millennials have a more holistic view of work and personal life and see work as being an extension of themselves. Their values guide how work gets done and will create more engaged teams, solid relationships and a more fulfilling life.

Impact on Other Generations
As you can imagine, this new approach to work will shake up traditional leadership practices that are still firmly entrenched in most organizations. Formal work processes, protocols and structures established by Traditionalists and Boomers are now outdated and need to evolve to suit the changing needs of our current workforce. Conflicting values and approaches to work will create tension between the generations that are reluctant to change their ways.

Research conducted by Canadian Management Centre last spring and published in the Spring edition of our RealityChek (TM) Report showed that 54 per cent of our survey respondents indicated that Millennials are challenging to lead and engage and 42 per cent found it difficult to build relationships with Millennials. Clearly, the different generations are having difficulty relating to the way Millennials work, collaborate and communicate.

Unfavourable perceptions of Millennials still exist in the workplace that create some tension. They’re considered lazy or not committed, because of the non-standard hours they keep as they integrate their personal and professional lives at work. Another point of frustration is the entitlement around access to, or dissemination of, information in the spirit of transparency or the need to be involved in decision making, where older generations may feel that it’s a privilege to have earned that right.

Improving How Generations Work Together
Our RealityChek (TM) survey indicated that while 97 per cent of people agreed there are differences in what each generation values in the workplace—only 26 per cent of respondents identified their organization made training or resources available.  It’s critically important that all generations learn to work together. They all have strengths that need to be leveraged and it’s best that organizations do their best to create awareness around what each generation expects and values in the workplace.

Five Ideas to Promote Inter-generational Understanding

  1. Multi-generational Training: Will reduce frustration and tension by creating a common understanding of what each generation expects and values in the workplace.
  2. Mentoring/Reverse mentoring: Millennials can educate older generations or leaders about what they expect in their workplace. And, older workers can help guide Millennials on how to be successful in their organization.
  3. Open Office Design: Promotes informal interaction among the different generations or levels of leadership.
  4. Team Social Activities: Encourages informal networking among generations through social activities: lunches, sports activities or common interest groups.
  5. Cross Functional Teams: Include Millennials on teams to enable them to develop an appreciation for how things work in organizations, as well as, build credibility in the workplace for their contributions.

Millennials and Innovation
Millennial leaders are in a great position to solve new real-world issues. They have the drive to take on tough challenges, the smarts to generate out-of-the-box ideas, the network to tap into additional talent and the confidence to recommend fresh non-traditional solutions. These new leaders may not have the experience to make the solutions work, but that’s where the knowledge and expertise of the older generations can help. Gen Xers and Boomers can provide them with feedback to refine their ideas and make them actionable. We need to give our Millennial leaders the autonomy to create their own process to inspire creativity and support them in this journey.

Preparing Our Millennials for Leadership
Leaders and HR professionals need to prepare Millennials to be leaders before they become leaders. It’s clear that our Millennial employees need foundational leadership training to help them build high-performing teams and to navigate the challenges of managing five generations in the workforce. They can also benefit from participating on cross-functional teams to develop organizational awareness and leadership skills early. Finally, a mentoring program can help them apply what they’ve learned by coaching them through real-life workplace challenges.

Millennials are an untapped resource in organizations. Their leadership style, energy and desire to make a meaningful impact will have a powerful influence in transforming organizations. It’s time that we create an environment of mutual understanding and respect for the unique talents that each generation brings to the workplace. This won’t be an easy transition for some, but the future of your organization depends on an engaged and high performing workforce.

Bernadette Smith is VP, talent management solutions with the Canadian Management Centre.

(PeopleTalk Spring 2015)

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