The idea that there is a hoard of so-called “millennials” tramping ever-closer to the doors of leadership is, by now, a well-ingrained consideration for many organisations. Phone-gazing, constantly connected and habitually job-hopping, this sizeable crowd is thought to be roaming the organisational landscape, demanding things be “just so” to meet their very exacting expectations of employers.
If the weight of the numerous studies on the inner-workings of the millennial brain is evidence of other generations’ great efforts to comprehend this advancing crowd, there is also an overwhelming sense that those born between 1980 and 2000 (or some variation on that theme) are somehow different from what has come before.
Deloitte’s 2016 Millennial Survey, for example, suggests that they are of a generation that expresses very little loyalty for their current employer, with many looking to jump ship in even the near-term. They hold strong views about businesses’ capacity to have a positive effect in the world, and they value flexibility in their working days.
This is echoed in a survey conducted by Ivey Business School’s Jay Gilbert, which suggested that millennials actively seek out challenges in their work while simultaneously holding a healthy work-life balance in the highest regard. They want to advance quickly, work socially and see immediate results in their roles.
Yet another study – this time from Workplacetrends.com, last year – found that an overwhelming percentage of millennials aspired to leadership roles and preferred minimal layers of management, while a majority also felt suitably prepared to take on this leadership responsibility.
Many surveys and studies, then, attempt to describe this tribe and set it apart from what has come before – perhaps trying to understand its particular characteristics and attributes before too many of them lurch up the career ladder and take on more responsibility.
These attributes, it has been suggested, spring from the pace of change that has swirled around this generation since birth. This is a group that has grown up alongside the internet; that has watched youthful college students create billion-dollar companies from their dorm rooms. Younger members may not even remember a time before touchscreen smart phones or the ability to communicate instantly with friends. Such things may well have a considerable effect on the nature of the leadership they aspire to.
But what does this mean for the current generation of leaders who – at least for the foreseeable future – remains in charge? Should they barricade their doors and windows, and hunker down until the millennial horde retreats?
There are certainly some commentators who have suggested that the “otherness” of millennials will necessitate leaders taking a different approach to that required for the Baby Boomers or Generation X. Some might be practical – for example, technology has advanced to allow greater flexibility in working practices. In this instance, leaders need only accept this as an option to better satisfy such demand. Others, such as an increased disdain for strict workplace hierarchies, might require greater changes to how leadership development opportunities are planned or even how organisations structure themselves.
At heart, though, a better understanding of the next generation has always been a part of good leadership practice. It is true that the millennial generation has grown up in a time of considerable technological and social change but this has also been true, to varying degrees, of every successive generation. Whether you were born in 1890 or 1990, you were always unlikely to hold the exact same views and expectations on working life as your parents or grandparents.
Effective leaders should not begin with an assumption of how those they are leading need to be led.
They mustn’t believe their followers share some form of “hive mind” of needs and drives, and they should actively avoid treating groups as stereotypes. In another decade or so, millennial leaders will no doubt be obsessing about what should be done about Generation Z.
The best of these leaders will realise that adaptability and an understanding of their common ground is a better starting point than readying themselves against the supposed differences.
Ahmad Badr is the chief executive of Abu Dhabi University Knowledge Group.
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