Recognizing Millennial Leadership

Millennial LeadershipOn January 1, 2011, the first Baby Boomer turned 65 years old. Every day since, 10,000 Boomers have turned 65. This will continue for the next 14 years.

And then one December night, in 2029, the very last Baby Boomer will reach that once traditional retirement age. And if she is employed, she might think like many of her predecessors – “Well, I’m not retiring just yet.”

Yet the reality may be different. In a 2014 Gallup poll, approximately half of Boomers reported that they were not planning on retiring until well past the age of 65. In fact, one in ten Boomers said they would never retire. However, a second Gallup poll found that the reality differed from the expectation.

Eight in ten Boomers in their early 50s were in the workforce. So were five in ten 60-year old Boomers. After that, the numbers dropped dramatically. Even in the post-Recession era, Boomers were not staying in the workplace at the high rates previously anticipated. By 67 and 68 years old, only one in three Boomers was still employed.  So where does that leave the generations behind them, in particular the Millennials?

Leadership Reality

In the not too distant past, Boomer leaders would have continued the trends of their predecessors – retiring by 65 and handing over the reins to someone younger, qualified, appropriately trained and adequately prepared to tackle the job. Now, however, many of these leaders and their HR teams report that while there are some Gen Xers with the ability to take the reins of leadership (many of whom already have), it’s that generation behind them that lacks both the interest and skills to become leaders. Now, there is some truth behind that.

According to a recent survey, Millennials are less interested than their older colleagues in taking on positions of power. The survey found that only 31% of Millennials aspired to become C-level executives in their organization. So yes, fewer Millennials are interested in filling the traditional leadership roles in their organizations. But the story doesn’t end there.

  • First, many Millennials are leaders. Deloitte recently surveyed Millennials across the globe. It found that 50% of respondents were already in leadership positions with 41% of them having 4 or more direct reports. Yes, millennial leadership is already here.
  • Second, Baby Boomers are retiring. And while there are many Gen Xers ready to take over leadership roles, there are far fewer Gen Xers than there are either Millennials or Boomers. Millennials will have to fill leadership roles, sooner or later.

So we can either approach the issue one of two ways. We can despair that Millennials will never become the leaders in our organizations that we want them to be and leave the problem for someone else to deal with eventually. Or we can try to determine what it is that Millennials want out of leadership and figure out what skills they wish, and need, to get them there.

Leadership Disconnect

“But Millennials aren’t trainable,” the detractors will say. “They are impatient, disloyal, narcissistic, and entitled.”

But as numerous studies and anecdotal evidence will tell you, Millennials want to work for an organization that, generally speaking, is meaningful and purposeful and for which they can do interesting work. Moreover Millennials seek to become influencers – to have what they do matter to the larger organization. Are those really traits that don’t befit a leader?

The disconnect might be in the way leadership is traditionally seen. Maybe Millennials do not want to lead the organization in the way the leaders of the organization currently do. Maybe top-down hierarchy doesn’t inspire them; collaborative teamwork with co-leads does. Maybe up and down the career ladder isn’t what they want; a career lattice would be preferable.

We won’t know the answers until we start the conversation.

Discovering Millennial Leadership

So talk to your Millennial employees. Find out how they envision themselves as leaders. The answers shouldn’t surprise you. As many surveys attest, Millennials want to be leaders who are approachable, open, visionary, transparent, ethical, fair, honest, and trustworthy. They want to encourage, inspire and motivate their employees. They want t0 treat their employees with respect and dignity, and to foster an inclusive workplace.

Aren’t those leadership traits that we all want to encourage? Of course there are other traits you may think are necessary that Millennials may not acknowledge – hard work and commitment for a start. But the only way to get there is to listen and learn, then to teach and lead.

So let’s start the conversation. And maybe on December 31, 2029, the last 65-year old Baby Boomer can retire knowing she has left her career legacy in capable hands.



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