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Preparing millennials for leadership success

7 min read



It hardly seems possible, but the time has come when high-potential millennials are assuming leadership roles.

If you take the long view, it makes sense to prepare your best, young professionals now for the big promotional step that their predecessors typically had to wait 10, 15 years or longer to expect. They’re already so “up to speed” on so many essential, differentiating aspects of the competitive marketplace that they add value now that renders the typical career maturing process obsolete. You want to keep them. And to keep them often means promoting them at a more accelerated rate than you might have normally.

Here’s the problem: They’re still young. And in many ways — judgment, emotional intelligence, perspective — they’re still immature. Fast-tracking their career path means that they necessarily skip essential skill-building and seasoning experiences that typically helped their older colleagues make wiser choices. To their credit, they know they need that extra support around critical developmental areas.

To fully grasp exactly where millennials require the extra support in their development, and how their expectations meet with the needs of their colleagues and companies, The Learning Café (a bicoastal consulting firm specializing in generational workplace issues) conducted a millennial manager research survey from 2011 through 2013. Over 400 millennial managers, their managers, peer managers, team members, HR, and business leaders participated. The responses represent the perceptions of all four workplace generations: Silent; Baby Boomer; Gen X; and Millennial. Participants came from corporations, federal government, not-for-profit, and industry associations.

The results reveal that all groups of co-workers agree that millennials need extra support around establishing sufficient respect and credibility that would allow them to

  • Lead older team members;
  • Build the fundamental management skills that are conventionally learned in the natural progression of a lengthy career;
  • Understand how to work effectively and at speed, while acknowledging hierarchy, bureaucracy, and status quo;
  • Allow for the necessary patience and time for projects and ideas to mature and gain coalition among a variety of constituents necessary to ensure the success that everyone desires.

Based on the results of the survey, The Learning Café has developed 12 prescriptions specifically designed to support senior executives in the development of millennial leaders. Below are the top six:

  1. Constantly double-check your assumptions. Until recently, the acquisition of professional and organizational knowledge typically went hand-in-hand with the accumulation of life experiences that helped a successful employee become a mature leader of people. Fast-tracked managers may provide an invaluable competitive advantage in their technical areas of expertise, but don’t let their senior titles lull you into the assumption that they’re also excellent people leaders. Happily, this generation is characterized by its eagerness to learn everything necessary to be successful. Your millennial leaders — the good ones, at least — will welcome training, coaching and developmental experiences designed to accelerate their leadership effectiveness.
  2. Raise their visibility internally with specific communication and development initiatives. Millennials need support in gaining credibility and respect in order to be accepted as leaders — especially leaders of people who are quite senior to them. Once you have identified key young talent whom you want to develop into leaders, take action to ensure that they are known, accepted, and endorsed by the entire organization, well in advance of their promotions. Assign them powerful, opinion-shaping mentors, who will, in turn, sponsor them for visibility-raising projects. Reverse the mentorship relationship, and assign millennials as mentors to senior leaders where appropriate. Send them to conferences and other industry meetings where they can gather and then report back to the entire organization the latest developments.
  3. Leverage their eagerness to learn from on-the-spot, on-the-go coaching spurts. The Millennial generation is marked by its eagerness to receive feedback and learn how to improve on an almost moment-by-moment basis. The time it takes to walk down the hallway with your millennials could be just enough time to offer praise for a job well done, a quick tip, action step, or insight that will help them improve their performance the next time.
  4. Bridge the generation gap. Millennials need coaching in working with, and managing, older generations. As a generation, they are at an age when questioning authority is a natural part of maturing anyway. In their accelerated roles as leaders, though, they can be seen as resistant toward existing systems or bureaucracy, which is basically true. Their informal, team-based, non-hierarchical approach to project management can be hard for older generations to tolerate. Their casual behaviors may be perceived by older co-workers as being disrespectful or insubordinate. All parties may need some guidance in finding common ground when it comes to change (or lack of change, for the millennials, in some instances).
  5. Encourage innovative thinking, even if it means having to listen to the same ideas that were rejected 15 years ago. Every young and enthusiastic high-potential is motivated to put forward ideas for improving the business. And every seasoned, been-there-done-that co-worker has probably heard those ideas before. So the conversation that concludes with, “We tried that 15 years ago; didn’t work then, won’t work now,” has historically been a hard bump in the rites of passage for young up-and-comers throughout the centuries.
    But consider: The idea that was rejected 15 years ago might have just been ahead of its time. And now conditions may have changed so much that the newly presented old idea is just the right thing at the right time for moving the business forward. A summary dismissal of the freshly proposed old idea could rob the company of an essential differentiator that’s perfect for now. The old idea that has come and gone repeatedly throughout the years may just be the idea whose time has finally come. Encourage your senior leaders to allow ideas — even the old, familiar, rejected ones — to percolate a little bit. And take the opportunity to teach the Millennials how to develop an idea into a solid business presentation.
  6. Revisit your expectations of how and when work best gets done. According to research published by Cisco Systems, 69% of Millennials believe that regular office attendance is unnecessary. And they may actually be right. Take a fresh look at how your work gets done, and whether being present in one’s permanently assigned cubicle really is essential to productivity and effectiveness. You may return to the conclusion that a conventional 9-to-5 schedule works best for your company. But a fresh study of scheduling assumptions will help you articulate your reasoning when your Millennials ask you why — and they will.

The speed of change in business today requires us all to revisit our assumptions, conventions, and traditions to make sure they lead to decisions that are most beneficial to our competitiveness now and in the future. One of those assumptions is how long a valued employee must “pay their dues” to qualify for promotion into a top leadership role. Indeed, is promotion a function of earning the prize? Or is it a strategic decision that best positions the performer into an essential competitive role where he or she is most likely to help the company succeed?

All indications point to the principle that companies that want to stay fast and nimble in their marketplace must be willing to fast-track their young high-performers into essential leadership roles. This is good strategy. Just never lose sight of the fact that they will need that extra support as they help your company race to the top.

Devon Scheef and Diane Thielfoldt are co-founders of The Learning Café, a consulting firm that helps clients bridge the workplace generation gap, develop outstanding leaders, create knowledge-sharing toolkits, and engage top talent. Get a free copy of the full report and the complete list of their recommendations.