How to Lead Millennials GenerationsLeadershipMost Popular

July 2nd, 2015 by Spencer Penhart leave a comment

young man on dock

“The counts of the indictment [against the upcoming generation] are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love of chatter in place of exercise.” – Source revealed later

I’ll never forget the first training class I had many years ago on generational research. It was 60 minutes of tough, old-school managers alternating between hysterical laughter and utter contempt for millennials, their spoiled ways, their helicopter parents, the end of life as we know it, and an utter refusal to change or give in to this insane rising generation. After an hour of wiping tears of laughter from our eyes, the instructor finished with a sobering point: The millennials will be taking over sooner rather than later, and your choices are to adapt, or be left behind. Suddenly, no one was laughing.

Research on generations is fascinating, useful, and fun. However, we should be very careful to not broad-brush or stereotype any group of people, including generations. Doing so may be easy and convenient, but this oversimplification will cause you to miss important opportunities and sources of great value.

People don’t fundamentally change over generations. We’re all still humans, and want what humans have always wanted: health, happiness, love, autonomy, purpose, friendship, security, etc. What does change over generations are values, attitudes, preferences, and behaviors. Understanding generational attributes is indeed helpful in many situations, including designing products geared toward these market segments. For example, the hotel industry is currently launching new brands of hotels geared specifically to millennials. These new brands feature “smaller rooms in favor of larger lobbies [and communal spaces], healthier snack offerings instead of full-service restaurants, and smart everything, from reservation set-ups to televisions and room keys”. Sounds horrible, right? I mean, other than the smart everything, I want the exact opposite of that!!! But everyone wins here: I get my large room and comfy bed at a traditional hotel, the millennials have one less cranky Gen X’er ruining their hip and trendy hotel space, and the hotel chain makes a killing appealing to a new and underserved segment. From a talent perspective, millennials have had access to education, technology and tools that we never had – why wouldn’t you want people with those abilities in your organization?

Here is where you do not need to cater to millennials: how you lead them. Many executives and managers are under the impression that they need to reinvent their leadership styles and work processes to accommodate the preferences of millennials. The truth is (and data shows) that you don’t. What you do need to have is effective leadership and processes regardless of the generations involved.

One of the most significant on-going leadership studies ever done (from The Leadership Challenge and The Truth About Leadership by Kouzes & Posner) is based on 30 years of data from nearly two million respondents across four continents. For over three decades, the researchers have been asking respondents of all generations the same question: “What are the attributes of a leader you would admire and willingly follow?” Guess what – the answers haven’t changed in 30 years! The top four attributes respondents continue to report are: Honest, Forward-Looking, Inspiring, and Competent. In other words, everybody generally wants those same core things from a leader, regardless of generation. What has shifted in the data the past few years is a rise in the desired attributes of Fair and Supportive – perhaps influenced by the rise of millennials in the work force – yet they remain behind the top four above. But ask yourself: does anybody want a boss who isn’t fair and supportive?

The renowned Center for Creative Leadership found similar results in their 2014 white paper based on their World Leadership Survey. Asking 5,940 U.S. managers to rate the importance of several characteristics on leadership effectiveness, the results did not differ by generation. Baby Boomers, Gen X’ers, and Millennials all rated Charismatic, Team-Oriented, Participative, and Humane-Oriented almost equally highly, while rating Hierarchical and Autonomous as less important.

For executives and managers, your solution to leading any generation is to have effective leadership and processes, period. Leadership remains the #1 most pressing global human capital challenge in business today, and the gap is widening. If you haven’t made leadership development a key strategic priority in your company, now is the time, or your company may not survive today’s rapidly changing environment to see the next generation.

“The counts of the indictment [against the upcoming generation] are luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love of chatter in place of exercise.” Do you happen to know where this quote comes from? Ancient Greece. :)

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