Generation gaps are a constant in our culture. As a new generation rises in influence, its tastes and preferences often conflict with older generations.
In business, this can translate to a variety of stereotypes, and that is especially true for millennials, or the lesser-used Generation Y label. As Rich Bellis details in a story for Fast Company, these stereotypes include narcissism, an aversion to constructive criticism, a sense of entitlement and laziness.
“If you believe in a certain stereotype to begin with, you’re guaranteed to find ‘proof’ in your own experiences to back it up,” Bellis writes. “But most millennials aren’t so easily characterized. As a group, we’re just as multifaceted as any other group of human beings.”
Millennials are now a dominant force in business, having surpassed Generation X in 2015 to become the largest part of the workforce, according to the Pew Research Center.
For well-established CEOs, catering to a younger generation may run counter to their instincts and experiences that brought them to the corner office. But there is value in understanding what millennials are seeking from the leadership so that their best efforts can be maximized.
Here’s a look at several things millennials may be looking for in their work and from business leaders.
A search for purpose
We all want some form of purpose in our professional lives, but millennials make it a high priority. A Deloitte University study titled “The Millennial Majority is Transforming Your Culture” reports that purpose plays a major role in how millennials choose where they work.
“Millennials are transforming the status quo by seeking purpose in the organizations they serve without sacrificing the flexibility to be who they are at work and live a fulfilling life outside of it,” the report states. “Purpose, in our context, is an overarching vision for positively contributing to society in a meaningful way. Nearly two out of three millennials state their organization’s purpose is a reason why they choose to work there, yet in organizational cultures without perceived purpose, only one out of five millennials are satisfied at work.”
This is a good example of how the generations take different approaches in leadership. Alan Murray examined a report by RW2 Enterprises and The Conference Board in a story for Fortune. The study asked CEOs and “rising millennial leaders” what traits would take top priority for a CEO in 10 years.
Interpersonal skills ranked highest for millennials, according to the report: “Their prototypical leader is an inspiring coach, a compelling communicator and one who … involves others in decision making rather than imposing decisions on them.”
As Murray writes, “ … Current CEOs ranked interpersonal skills less highly, and instead give priority to ‘critical thinking’ and ‘business and management skills’ as well as ‘stakeholder management’ — which were seen as less important by Millennials.”
How an office is arranged may not seem to be a direct connection to professional happiness, but open-floor plans can allow for greater communication and transparency, both of which can appeal to millennials. These offices can also contribute to the aforementioned priority of purpose, as Elizabeth Dukes writes for Entrepreneur. She credits Michael Bloomberg, Tony Hsieh and Mark Zuckerberg for bringing this approach to their businesses.
“The key is combining the open floor plan with thoughtful areas that empower them to do their best work,” she writes of millennials. “This is particularly the case across generational workers, who exhibit different preferences for how they work. … Being seated in earshot of the CEO and other relevant colleagues allows younger workers to understand the larger mission, their work styles and how to apply those cultural and management lessons to their own work. Millennial CEOs also thrive on the buzz and hum they feel working in a hive environment where they can activate clusters of workers just by leaning over, starting a dialogue or brainstorming a new idea on the fly.”
Here’s an element that can have its tricky side. In a story for The Washington Post, Jena McGregor examined a 2017 study by Weber Shandwick and KRC Research. The report showed that millennials gravitate toward CEOs who engage in activism, as in “when corporate officials make public statements on social issues.”
“Millennials are the one group that sees this trend in a significantly positive way,” McGregor explains. “In the survey, 56 percent of millennials said CEOs and other business leaders need to engage on hotly debated current issues more today than in the past, compared with just 36 percent of Gen Xers and 35 percent of baby boomers. Forty-seven percent of millennials said CEOs have a responsibility to speak up on social issues that are important to society, compared with just 28 percent of Americans in older generations. And millennials were the only generation in the survey in which the percentage of those who said they view CEOs more favorably for taking public positions actually expanded since last year, rather than declined.”
Some CEOs may favor that outlook, and some may want to avoid it, because of the often-divisive nature of political issues. A Fortune story by Tom Huddleston Jr. noted two CEO takes on moral stances in a discussion with PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi and Aetna’s Mark Bertolini.
Nooyi: “The best thing is to focus on running the company, do not take positions, and just make sure that you focus on your community.”
Bertolini: “We should be able to take moral positions and support the mission of the organization.”
‘Leadership of the self’
The interpretation of leadership can evolve as new generations emerge. What worked for the baby boomers and Generation X may not translate well to millennials. In a story for Forbes, Sarah Landrum writes that millennials “are at the forefront of a leadership movement,” noting that it’s not “dominion over others, but rather leadership of the self.” There is “a higher need to self-start, self-educate and self-sustain ourselves,” she explains.
“Leadership for Millennials isn’t really a skill that’s learned so much as it’s a state we enter where we’re more likely to think deeply about what we do and how we can do it better. It’s about taking on modern life with a sort of holistic state of mind, bringing together our emotional and physical health, dedication to effective communication and personal and professional relationships. In short, while we certainly must possess and celebrate the right to a formal education, we must also commit ourselves to the responsibility to educate ourselves.”
CEOs should already have notable skills as communicators, though it’s an area in which people of all professions and ranks can improve. The interactions CEOs have with millennials may take a different turn than with members of previous generations. Writing for Forbes, Ashley Stahl advises CEOs to “welcome ideas from everyone, and work around the table — not up the ladder.”
“Baby Boomers are known for their strict adherence to hierarchy and harmony, whereas Gen Y really likes the ‘team’ approach — to just about everything,” she writes. “We get frustrated when we’re denied access to the CEO, because we grew up with the message that success isn’t determined by experience, it’s determined by powerful ideas and the willingness to act on them. The leaders we look up to are the ones who believe in actualizing big ideas efficiently and collaboratively.”