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Are Millennials Ready to Lead?

By Melissa J. Anderson

Recently the Boston College Center for Work & Family released an executive news brief [PDF] on the topic of Millennials in the workplace. Written by Lauren Stiller Rikleen, Esq., the brief pointed out three key traits to remember about Gen Y individuals, when it comes to their future ability to lead companies.

First of all, Millennials are more than comfortable with using the latest technology in the workplace. Second, they desire a high level of flexibility to balance their professional and personal lives. And third, they desire meaning in their work – they want to be sure they are doing something that inspires them personally.

Add this to the fact that there aren’t nearly enough Gen X-ers to take over for the crop of baby-boomers who will be leaving the professional environment in the next decade or so, and it means companies must be sure they are playing to Gen Y’s strengths and providing opportunities to develop them into leaders – and soon.

What Makes Millennials Tick?

Rikleen suggests in the BCCWF brief that companies must be able to accommodate Millennials’ desire for flexibility. She writes:

“More than ever before, understanding a young employee’s belief that he or she can sufficiently meet the needs and responsibilities of parenting as well as meet the expectations and obligations of the workplace will be paramount to retaining and advancing high quality workers. For Millennials to lead successfully, they will need to achieve the “gender flexibility” in parenting that Gerson describes. Millennial men and women seek a supportive work culture that allows fathers as well as mothers to thrive in both their parenting and their careers.”

This means, she explains, that companies are likely to take advantage of the generation’s level of comfort with technology to drive the implementation of alternative work arrangements. And, because many Millennials are beginning to have children, companies need to implement these practices soon. If Gen Y employees, who have been shown to be less loyal to employers than their predecessors, feel that their companies are not working to leverage available technologies to provide a more seamless work/life situation, they will go elsewhere.

And, Rikleen suggests, simply paying them a higher salary won’t keep them on board. She writes, “Specifically, many managers believe that Millennials are primarily focused on money, whereas Millennials report themselves as more focused on meaning.” This generation of employees wants to feel like they are creating value for their organization, and not just filling a seat. Providing learning and development opportunities is critical for providing that meaningful connection Millennials seek.

Developing Leaders

In the past, the path to leadership has been a combination of persistence, loyalty, and working long hours. Millennials, the most diverse and most highly educated group of individuals in the workplace (according to Pew research), clearly have a different view of what work should look like.

As the size of Generation X is not large enough to fill all the gaps in leadership that the Boomers will leave when they retire, companies must be ready to accommodate a generation of talented employees that don’t plan to follow the traditional path to the top. The good news is that companies do have the ability to attract, retain, and develop Millennials into the leaders they need. In fact, much of the nuts and bolts for this strategic shift are already in place – for example, telework technology. But what is missing is a cultural acceptance that leadership development is changing.

But that doesn’t mean Millenials won’t need to accommodate workplace realities as well. In the brief, Rikleen provides three tips on how companies can work with Millennials to prepare them for eventual leadership.

First of all, she says, companies must develop training initiatives to “foster mutual support and understanding” between generations. This means making sure Millennials have the soft skills to assimilate into workplace culture. Second she says, companies should be sure to keep communication open and transparent, and to incorporate useful technology.

Managers should also be prepared to make some changes, she continues.

“By being intentional about leadership development, current workplace managers can incorporate teachable moments into their day-to-day activities. The development of two-way mentor- ship programs can encourage people to connect at both the professional and the personal level. Another part of effective management is to delegate more efficiently which provides stretch opportunities to Millennials. And it is also important to keep in mind that Millennials expect to bring fun into the workplace – something that can benefit all generations.”

Finally, she adds, everyone will have to work to develop a stronger appreciation for intergenerational diversity. Appreciating the inherent strengths of other generations can help boost morale, improve collaboration, and ensure critical skills and information get passed to future leaders.

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