What Millennials Can Teach Us About Leadership Development

May 16, 2017 Tammy Heermann & Seonaid Charlesworth

How much money would you spend on someone that might leave you at moment’s notice?

This is the conundrum facing employers when they look out over an office now heavily populated with Millennial employees and start to wonder, is it a good idea to invest heavily in high-potentials from this generation?

Millennials have been labeled the job-hopping generation, more likely to switch gigs rather than fight for what they want. That is particularly true for high-potentials, who have a much higher market value and limitless career options. This generation of less loyal high-potentials has, to put it bluntly, put the leadership development strategies of many organizations into complete disarray.

Do Millennials need an entirely different approach to career and leadership development? The answer is yes… and no.

First, let’s look at the theory that Millennials are more likely to hop from job to job than their parents. There have been many surveys to support this claim, including an influential report from Gallup in May 2016 that found that 21 percent of Millennials had changed jobs in the past year, three times the rate of other generations. Only half of Millennials – compared to 60 percent of non-Millennials – plan on working for the same company a year from now.

If we look at a snapshot of today’s workforce, we see a greater willingness to leave one job for what is hopefully a better job. But are Millennials really that different from the generations that came before them?

Contrasting data from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that Baby Boomers hopped jobs just as frequently when they were in their 20s. This data is an important reminder that, rather than trying to come up with a whole new approach and language to retain Millennial leaders, the real trick may be simply improving your overall approach to leadership development.

There are important differences between the younger and older generations in your office. Millennials, driven by the pervasive influences of social media, are more attuned to the concepts of community and collaboration.

They also want a high-touch career experience, with lots of face time and feedback from their managers. They want work-life balance so that they can grow outside their careers. And perhaps most importantly, they want to work in an organization that gives them frequent opportunities to learn.

These aspirations do not differ that much from what Boomers wanted when they started their working lives. However, employers can attest to the fact that high-potential Millennials are much more willing to enunciate and fight for what they want. And if they don’t get it, they’re more willing to leave and look for it elsewhere.

When you get right down to it, the frustration that many organizations feel about not being able to relate to Millennial high-potentials is actually related to the fact that they have not evolved their leadership development programs enough to keep up with the current workforce.

Far too many organizations think that to relate to Millennials, they have to create “cool” leadership development portals; that they can connect with Millennials through social media or apps that “speak their language.” In fact, very few of these initiatives create any affinity with Millennials. More often, they flop and convince younger workers that they are not getting what they want from their current job.

So what should you do? For high-potentials, stay focused on the pillars of a successful leadership development program.

Competencies

The good news is that Millennials have a strong desire to move up and take on more responsibility. However, those desires are not often accompanied by an understanding of the competencies needed for future success: critical thinking; emotional stability; tolerance for ambiguity; the ability to collaborate; openness to different people and ideas; and strong drive. Like workers from prior generations, Millennials may not have an innate understanding of the importance of these characteristics. The good news is that Millennials have a strong desire to be told specifically what it is they need to do to succeed and move up. And research suggests they are more attuned to the importance of softer or people skills than previous generations.

Assessment

Older generations have become skeptical of assessments. Much of that apprehension is due to the fact that earlier iterations of the annual evaluation tended to be underwhelming and awkward experiences, rather than constructive conversations for improving overall performance. Millennials, on the other hand, are enormously open to assessment. That does not mean, however, that they want to queue up for the traditional annual evaluation. Instead, Millennials want to learn more about themselves and what they need to do to get ahead on a near constant basis. They want face-time with managers that can provide real-time feedback. They also want managers who will focus on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative.

Learning

Along with being more open minded about performance feedback, Millennials believe very strongly in having opportunities to learn and improve themselves. It’s a fair trade when you think about it: a willingness to address shortcomings or skill deficiencies as long as that feedback comes with very real opportunities to upgrade and improve those skills. Traditional learning tools will likely not do the trick – Millennials will want more experiential educational opportunities where they can learn via a hands-on approach rather than in an all-day classroom environment. Fortunately, this dovetails very nicely with the need for many Millennials to learn from the experience of others. Although they are naturally inclined to seek guidance from peers through social media, they cannot learn how to solve all of the problems they will face in their careers from a peer group that is equally lacking in experience. Exposing Millennials to articulate, experienced coaches and mentors is critical.

When you look at these three main takeaways, a startling fact should become apparent: although these are best practices for connecting with and developing Millennials high-potentials, they are also best practices for developing leaders that may belong to other generations as well.

Millennials are, in many ways, helping organizations focus on the essential elements of a successful leadership development program. Many of the corners that were cut for previous generations in terms of assessment, learning or mentoring cannot be ignored with Millennials. As noted above, this generation will simply move on if they are not getting what they want out of a work experience.

The trick here is not to build a special leadership development strategy just for Millennials, but rather to learn from them how to improve leadership development for everyone.

Contact us to learn more about how we can help your organization achieve its business goals!

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