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Q-and-A: How business leaders can better relate to a younger workforce

5 min read


Pekka A. Viljakainen has been an ambassador between business executives and technology teams, handling complex governance and political topics inside large international organizations and delivering results for over 20 years.

Mark Mueller-Eberstein, as the CEO of Adgetec Corp. and professor at Rutgers University, is a business accelerator, coach, speaker and author of the best-selling “Agility: Competing and Winning in a Tech Savy Marketplace.” He has over 15 years of global leadership experience in the IT Industry, helping companies, governments and their leaders to succeed.

SmartBrief interviewed Viljakainen and Mueller-Eberstein on their new book, “No Fear: Business Leadership in the Age of Digital Cowboys,” published this year.

“No Fear” discusses the importance of today’s corporate leaders adapting to the culture of a younger generation. Is it more important for leaders to connect with younger generations, as opposed to the younger generation adapting to traditional business culture? Why?

“No Fear” is not actually promoting a one-way approach where older leaders are expected to learn from the younger generations. It is a two-way street. It is more about getting people with different experiences from various age groups to work effectively together.

Old-school leadership styles typically try to force this collaboration and transformation to happen within teams. Today, this is simply not possible (or effective) if the leaders try to isolate themselves when taking the lead at the frontline of their team.

What could be a very easy and fruitful dialogue between different age groups and talents will be inhibited by ego and personal pride. If this happens, younger generations will feel stifled by the lack of innovation and will leave under such rigid organizations. At the same time, the older generations will act in fear of dealing with the younger talent (instead of learning from them), and trying to enforce top-down organizational processes.

What’s the No. 1 mistake that leaders make when trying to relate to the younger generations, and how can they avoid it?

The key mistake current leaders often make is to not engage at all with the “Digital Cowboys” and their sometimes uncomfortable questioning of the status quo within an organization.

The fear of the unknown often gets in their way to reach out and embrace the insights and enthusiasm the “Digital Cowboys” bring to their workplace and to their organizations.

In “No Fear,” Pekka is sharing his personal experiences of realizing and overcoming the mistakes as a leader, while Mark is outlining mentoring across generations and levels as one tool for leaders and “Digital Cowboys” to benefit personally as well as their organizations from the direct engagement.

Another common fear within the traditional organizations and in many cultures is the fear of making and admitting mistakes. The effort to appear perfect does cost so much energy and eventually will not create the kind of culture in which innovating and critical thinking that are so important for the success in our knowledge economy can flourish.

Transparency, authenticity and openness are key attributes the leaders of today and tomorrow need to embrace and model within their organization. Pekka points out how he explicitly uses his own mistakes in a very public way to explain learnings as well as paths into the future. Stories like that are mirrored by many of the contributors to “No Fear,” and Mark explains that a culture that is quickly and agile acknowledging and learning from their mistakes can innovate and outperform their competition.

In the book, you mention how the business world is going global. What advice do you have for leaders looking to branch out globally for the first time?

Have no fear. The world has never been so prepared for global dialogue than it is today. The young generation — all over the world — is well-equipped to work in global teams. For a leader, globalization means leading ALL talents, in ALL countries in a transparent and equal way. While it is difficult to communicate globally, achieving the international business formula is one of the most rewarding moments any leader could experience.

The role of technology in the business world is growing more every day. What’s the best way for swamped leaders to keep up with the technological tides of change?

Consumerization and simplification of information and communication technologies are key trends that are reshaping how organizations need to think about their IT environment.

The kind of workplace the “Digital Cowboys” are looking for is a place that provides them with: their choice of devices, times and places to work; flexibility for their work and collaboration preferences; and instant access to information and expertise.

In “No Fear,” the authors go beyond the focus on technology capabilities and look at the organization, technological and leadership transitions that unlock the potential of organizations and the individuals within them; independent of their level or title.

There is no cookie-cutter model, tool or application. The best way to start this whole process is really to get your youngest and brightest talents to one room and ask them, “What the heck should I, as a leader, do to connect with them in a way that promotes productivity and communication?”