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Future of leadership: Looking at today’s Millennial managers and how they lead

By Diane Thielfoldt

By 2014, half of all employees in the world will be those born after 1980. That 50% will include many supervisors and managers—more, in fact, than one might expect: The Millennial generation is assuming leadership roles earlier than any generation in the United States to date. And current young managers indicate that their leadership style is quite different from what the workplace has grown accustomed to.

This article examines the personal and work traits of Millennials, as well as their leadership styles and values. The characteristics outlined here will influence the culture, processes, and values of business in the near future—just as the Baby Boomers (defined as those born between 1946 and 1964) had tremendous impact on the culture of work from the 1970s through today.

From November 2011 through May 2012, the consulting firm The Learning Café (thelearningcafe.net) interviewed 50 Millennial leaders (responsible for managing staff) and emerging leaders in the electrical distribution industry about their views on leadership and organizational life. The oldest person included in the research was 35 years old and the youngest was 22. These subjects fit the model of the new, high-value workforce—well educated, high expectations, and a willingness to “walk, not whine,” that is, move to a new job rather than remain dissatisfied with their current position.

As the oldest Millennials mature in age and management experience, our workplaces will start to reflect their generation’s styles and values. Therefore, in the interview subjects were asked to predict, “What will make your generation of leaders different from previous generations of leaders?” This article is based on their responses.

The subjects interviewed for the research held job titles that included vice president, electrical construction; director of commercial sales; director of marketing; director of sales; district sales manager; western region sales manager; sales manager; purchasing manager; branch manager; operations manager; manager, inside sales; supervisor, shipping/receiving; supervisor, warehouse; energy consultant; sales engineer; project manager; and manager, sales development. There were also positions held in purchasing, marketing, public relations, sales, operations, finance, accounting, and engineering.

The Generation Defined

There are 75 million members of the youngest generation in today’s workforce, all raised during the most child-centric time in U.S. history. Millennials (defined as those born between 1977 and 1998) display a great deal of self-confidence, and at times may appear cocky to other generations, perhaps because of the shower of attention and high expectations they received from their parents.

Ongoing research by The Learning Café shows that Millennials perform best with some structure, especially younger Millennials who are newer to the workplace. Sometimes coached by their parents, this generation does not see the value of paying their dues before they get a promotion or move ahead in their organization. They do not value job title and position as highly as older generations do and show less reverence for a position that’s simply based on experience. Rather, they respect knowledge, learning, and results.

Members of the Millennial generation look for a relationship with their boss. They want their managers to be coaches, mentors, and even friends. They prefer to spend time with their direct supervisor and have plenty of interaction; they want to seek advice and, perhaps most importantly, get feedback on their performance. This does not typically mesh with Generation X’s (defined as those born between 1965 and 1976) love of independence and a hands-off work style. If a Millennial is lacking these manager-employee relationships, he or she is likely to seek a new position that provides that connection.

Although members of older generations may hold negative opinions of some traits and work habits of Millennials, the fact is that this is a hard-working, productive generation of workers and leaders, and they bring many essential skills and insights to their organizations. “We are hungry, we are ready and willing to work, we are ambitious, and we want to make change,” said one interview subject.

Millennial Leaders: Who Are they?

The Millennial interview subjects self-defined the strengths, values, and other traits that differentiate them as a generation of leaders. The eight strongest characteristics mentioned were:

1. Technically savvy. This generation is, understandably, extremely literate in and comfortable with technology and its expanding communication channels. The constant new developments and upgrades in systems and tools have always been part of Millennials’ lives. Their effortless use of technology is part of how these leaders are changing the way business is conducted, according to interview subjects. Technology is a building block to new and better in-house processes (this generation is undaunted at the prospect of implementing new computer systems or order entry systems) and transforming day-to-day work, as Millennial leaders rely on smart phones and other tools that allow them to be available 24/7.

“The better our technology, the more efficient we become as leaders,” said one interviewee. They expect to use technology to receive or find information quickly—such as information about a prospective customer, the amount of money a competitor is devoting to online advertising, or a new product—and to use those same tools to solve problems.

2. Adaptable and open to change. Millennial leaders are “pioneers of change,” according to one subject. They view the “old way” their organizations have operated as a good starting point, but will not hesitate to adapt practices to new models in order to improve. More open to change than older generations, these workers are accustomed to adapting rapidly and will take their teams, departments, and organizations along with them.

3. Flexible. As with their Generation X counterparts, Millennial leaders are task oriented rather than time oriented; they measure productivity by the work completed rather than hours spent at the office. Flexible office hours, telecommuting, and more mobile offices will replace the already dwindling status quo of spending the hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. sitting in the office. However, this does not mean that Millennials work constantly.

They have a strong desire for balance in their work and personal lives and demand appropriate personal time as well as their well-deserved vacations. For example, a Millennial leader will work from home in the evenings and over the weekend so that he can take a Tuesday off to see his child’s baseball game. Millennials know how to work efficiently through remote-office technologies but will not become the workaholics that Baby Boomers have.

4. Educated and education oriented. One interviewee dubbed education “the cornerstone of our success.” Millennials place great emphasis on college degrees and continuing education. They are comfortable with learning new things and are eager to be challenged and intellectually stimulated. Amassing knowledge—whether on the job, with mentors, in the classroom, or completely independently—is a strong motivator for this group.

5. Fast-moving. One interview subject called Millennials the “right-now generation” because of its lightning pace at tackling everything. Admittedly impatient, Millennial leaders value action and want to accomplish tasks quickly. This ties in with their competitive spirit and goal-oriented drive, and also with their desire for immediate rewards. “We have never had to wait for anything. So why should we wait to become leaders?” said one interview subject. “We won’t. And we are becoming leaders earlier than those before us.”

This fast pace extends to communication preferences. Millennial leaders demand information be delivered clearly and concisely: They want an outline of goals, objectives, strategies, and the direction in which the organization is headed. They request constant updates from their team and want to know the meaning and purpose of every mission that they are involved with. Today’s technology suits these needs; Millennials rely on the speed of texting, social media, email, and video conferencing.

6. Willing to improve. One reason that Millennial leaders have risen so fast is their ease at self-improvement. They have made an effort to understand and personalize their leadership styles to improve their contributions to the organization. The aforementioned confidence in themselves, appreciation of learning, and ability to self-reflect all feed into this. “We don’t want anything handed to us,” stated one subject. “We want to prove ourselves and earn our leadership positions.”

7. Inclusive and environmentally conscious. Because of the times in which they grew up, Millennials prefer a diversified workplace and are generally accepting of differences in ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and personal opinion. They also share a concern for the environment and the future of the country and favor “socially responsible leadership.”

8. Authority challenging. Interview subjects stressed that while they respect individuals in positions of authority, they are not hesitant to present a differing opinion, share an idea, or make a suggestion to superiors. In other words, they are comfortable in challenging or questioning authority. Millennials see the business world as a level playing field, where they have rights to participate, rather than sit on the sidelines and revere authority. They are also intolerant of corruption and are keen to become whistleblowers if they discover something untoward in their organization. “Our confidence and ability to not be intimidated may not be well received,” noted one Millennial.

Leadership Styles and Values

The interview subjects were also asked about how they lead their teams and how they view and nurture their own leadership. Their responses covered seven aspects of their style:

1. Working as a team. “My generation of leaders loves teamwork and is willing to spend more time building relationships with our teams,” summarized one interview subject. They share a willingness to collaborate, network, and motivate one another. This results in a more democratic version of leadership; Millennials are shifting the norm from top-down leadership to participative management. They are focused on team building and collaboration and encourage open communication in the work environment. Millennial managers will admit that they may not know everything and are willing to ask for help.

2. Pitching in for success. Millennial leaders don’t simply focus on their “piece of the pie.” As team players, they want to lend their skills and ideas to help make the organization successful. They are trying to harness technology, adaptability, and resourcefulness to meet challenges, all while navigating a rapidly changing business climate. They know their strengths and will work smarter rather than harder to succeed.

3. Valuing mentors. It’s understandable that Millennial leaders want mentoring. They are relatively new to management and need guidance, but they also value learning and prefer coaching and working as a team. Working with a mentor who is a veteran manager fulfills many of these preferences and can also bring fresh insights to these confident newcomers: “Our success will come only if we build our careers around the values and fundamentals the prior generations exhibited…. We must use mentors when making decisions—get their valuable insight,” said one interview subject. Baby Boomer managers who will eventually pass the torch make excellent mentors for this generation, and the knowledge transfer that occurs is icing on the cake.

4. Ensuring training for employees. Just as the Millennial leaders value education for themselves, they want it for their employees, not only in the form of training, but also in an ongoing learning environment. When assigning a task or project, they make sure to provide an explanation of how and why things are done. “We need to understand how things fit into the bigger picture in order to fully understand a concept,” said one subject. Millennial leaders will communicate to employees how their role will help the organization be successful.

One of their leadership goals is to provide a solid foundation for employees to grow; this will also help teams stay current with emerging markets and global and domestic economies. In addition to new outside information, Millennial leaders work to transfer knowledge from veteran employees to a new generation of employees.

5. Taking risks. Millennial leaders are not afraid to take risks. It is part of their competitive nature to reach higher, for the sake of improving the organization as well as to prove themselves. Their inherent confidence lends them certainty that they can succeed; this combined with the young leaders’ desire to prove themselves makes this generation willing to take risks. And, unlike some older generations, they don’t feel the need to question the risk, agonize over it, or dissect it—they simply move forward.

6. Receiving recognition. Because Millennials as a generation are results driven, they expect immediate gratification for their hard efforts. They are motivated by unique rewards and are apt to use similar rewards to motivate their team members. When asked what kept them satisfied, motivated, or productive, those surveyed identified the following:

  • Challenging, stimulating, varied work: 59%
  • Growth, learning, and development: 52%
  • Enjoyable work environment: 49%
  • Pay: 43%
  • Healthy work-life balance/flexibility: 41%
  • Appreciation (nonmonetary) recognition: 30%
  • Making a difference/contribution: 27%
  • Good boss: 22%
  • Treated with dignity and respect: 15%
  • Autonomy, ability to innovate/create: 14%
  • Benefits: 14%
  • Good communication: 13%
  • Company/industry reputation: 4%

7. Adding fun to the mix. Of course, managers of all ages love fun. But Millennial leaders expect a mix of fun and work. They work hard but value some lightness in the workplace such as social interaction, special events and lunches, and less formality. They bring this value to the teams they manage, though added fun should not be confused with lack of motivation or professionalism.

In Conclusion

The 20- and 30-something-year-old leaders in today’s electrical distribution industry will guide their organizations—and the industry as a whole—into the future. The traits and values outlined here will gradually bleed into the work styles of employees of all ages, much as the Baby Boomers shaped the way we’ve worked for the past 30 years. Offices, warehouses, and plants will shift toward a model that involves teamwork, technology, a faster pace, and a learning-centered environment.

As this youngest generation continues to take the helm of businesses across the country, we’ll see many changes in processes, corporate culture, climate—and yes, even the speed at which we move ahead. It’s important to remember that change is truly good—especially in light of the promise and potential shown by today’s Millennial leaders and emerging leaders.

NOTE: From concept to completion, the research and reporting that is referenced in this article represents a collaboration between Diane Thielfoldt, co-founder of The Learning Café, and NAED’s Eastern Region Council. The Millennial panel participants at the 2011-2012 NAED Region Conferences inspired us to ask the question: “How will your generation of leaders lead differently?”

The Learning Café would like to thank the NAED Western, South Central, and Eastern Region distributor and associate members that took the time to contribute to the article or nominate a Millennial colleague to contribute.

A copy of an executive summary of this research report, including common themes and organizational implications, can be requested by emailing NAED Region Manager Brian Peters at bpeters@naed.org.

How does your organization rate on appealing to its Millennial leaders? Download a report card to provoke conversation and spark dialogue.

Thielfoldt is co-founder of The Learning Café, a consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations develop, engage, and retain the talent of every generation. An accomplished workshop facilitator and engaging speaker, Thielfoldt has educated hundreds of managers on issues involving the multigenerational workplace. Reach her at TLC@TheLearningCafe.net.

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