Preparing Today’s Millennial Leaders To Become Tomorrow’s Great CEOs
In the not-too-distant future, we will see millennials joining the ranks of C-suites, becoming CEOs of large enterprises, and taking their place as the pre-eminent leaders of tomorrow. Today, millennials (roughly considered to be those between 18 and 34 years of age) are 76 million strong – the largest living generation in the US, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those who have experience managing high-performing millennials appreciate how different they are from previous generations. However, corporate America is still struggling to appreciate the value that millennials bring – and how to get the best from them as they progress into leadership roles.
Today, there are already many millennial CEOs in the fashion and technology industries. In more traditional business domains, like the financial or advertising sectors, they are typically three levels below C-suite. Within the next five years, most of them will be only one or two levels from C-suite. When nurturing tomorrow’s millennial CEOs, there are a number of questions that we should be asking, including: What inner values guide millennials’ motivations and choices? Gen X-ers are largely considered pragmatists who don’t easily buy into the things they are told. Boomers are seen as idealists who single-mindedly believe that what they were taught in business school should simply work. Millennials are somewhere between the two.
What specific and unique qualities should we be looking for in the next generation of CEOs? Should we be using the same criteria as we do for current leaders? Today, we often look for a willingness to take calculated risks and to take a stance; a bias toward action, not just talk; and the ability to efficiently pick good people and mobilize them. While these desired attributes might not change in the future, we can expect millennial CEOs to be more comfortable when it comes to dealing with ambiguities and taking risks. They are generally more adept at operating under extreme uncertainties.
Will these future millennial CEOs be more like the current crop – think Mark Zuckerberg – or will their leadership styles resemble those of an older generation of leaders, such as Howard Schultz or Elon Musk? If they are anti-establishment in nature and take pride in re-architecting current systems, what will they dismantle from the ecosystem that was built and handed over to them? Although previous generations spent a lot of time and money supporting and updating legacy systems, millennials will favor starting anew.
I am not sure that there are answers to the above questions, but here are a few observations from my experience with millennials.
01 MILLENNIAL LEADERS ON LOYALTY
Millennial leaders have little organizational loyalty. Many grew up jumping from startup to startup, gig to gig, as a means to enhance their own careers and experiences. They will probably place less emphasis on loyalty when they hire people, and more emphasis on skills. Their expectations surrounding employee loyalty are more likely to relate to employees achieving a certain milestone, rather than focusing on workers becoming lifers. It is not that loyalty doesn’t exist for these younger leaders – their loyalty to an organization is just highly influenced by their degree of engagement with their leadership role. Millennial leaders are highly impatient; they are hungry for growth in their current jobs (whether they are ready or not) and expect to regularly move up the ladder. If this doesn’t happen, retention will falter. Loyalty is linked to career progress – not stability. This is in contrast to this generation’s loyalty to brands, which they will stick with through thick and thin – as long as the brand aligns with their aspirations and purpose.
02 MILLENNIAL CEOS ON LEADERSHIP
Millennials will lead in fundamentally different ways. They highly value on-the-job development opportunities, rather than formal training, as the most effective way to learn. Every task or project should have built-in development opportunities and feedback loops to ensure progress is explicit. These young leaders need coaches that are not senior by experience, but by an exceptional ability to help transform others. Millennial leaders value how important it is to create meaningful learning journeys in order to attract and retain high performers, and they will put a strong emphasis on investing and developing a blended new array of learning technologies and pedagogical means. They favor transparency and have the ability to engage others with a sense of purpose.
03 MILLENNIAL LEADERS ON VALUES
Millennial leaders certainly have different values than their older counterparts and current CEOs, but these differences aren’t as dramatic as you might think. All leaders place the highest value on strong ideas, execution capabilities, and critical thinking and problem solving. I think there will be more emphasis on creativity and the value of customer experience, along with more diversity in the workplace.
04 MILLENNIAL LEADERS ON THE WORKPLACE
Millennial leaders prefer workplaces that are open and fun – many grew up in such environments. They favor low-hierarchy organizational structures, while also demanding visibility of career progress and pathways (which, in principle, sounds contradictory). They expect good coffee; free snacks and Ping-Pong tables are the norm. They prefer more flexibility and the ability to move from a project room to community workspaces and hot desks. Millennials highly value flexible policies for vacation and options for working remotely. And yet, as much as they are comfortable with virtual meetings, they still place a lot of value on face-to-face interactions with mentors so that they can get frequent feedback.
While it’s incredibly hard to predict what will happen two decades from now, I am generally positive that millennials can make better CEOs than their older counterparts. They are highly engaged and purpose-driven digital natives. They strive for a good balance between corporate responsibility, sustainability, and profitability. They are also incredibly ambitious and aspirational, with most of them growing up inspired by the likes of Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Musk. One thing is for sure: The workplace will be a lot more casual, with far more value-add services for employees in the form of novelty amenities. It won’t quite be about work-life balance, but rather work-life seamless integration. For millennial leaders, there will be few boundaries between work and life.