Are today’s leaders listening to the needs and concerns of the talented professionals on their teams who will be leading businesses tomorrow? Here’s a story of how a group of young professionals sees leadership today; what they think is working, what needs to change, advice they have for current leaders – and how they would do it differently.
Conventional wisdom in management discussions is that the behaviour and expectations of young professionals are very different from the previous generation. Elements of this profile are true. But sweeping statements, for example about restless millennials are largely clichés. These interactions reveal that all are not itching to move on every year. They’re just as hungry as the previous generation to learn from their seniors – if that’s available. And most don’t hop jobs just to teach their old-style employers a lesson. Maybe it’s because leaders aren’t listening to what the new generation values in a stimulating work experience.
Michael Devlin took the pulse in conversations with a group of tomorrow’s leaders. There are no universal truths here. But interesting common threads emerge from these chats with seven members of the global workforce from Brazil, India, the US, Germany, UK and The Philippines.
All this was pre-COVID. Since these conversations, our world has changed. It will be interesting to know how their thinking has evolved over the past four months. Priorities may have shifted. The crisis may even have moved some of these professionals closer to the leadership seat.
Everything you always wanted to know about motivating the next generation but might have forgotten to ask. By Michael Devlin
Are we listening to the needs and concerns of our talented professionals who will soon be tomorrow’s leaders? Seven young professionals talk about how they see leadership today, what needs to change and how they would do it differently.
When browsing management articles and cases about young professionals, one of the first issues that pops up is a long list of clichés about millennials and their behaviour.
The conventional view of millennials – today’s generation of 20/30-something professionals – holds that that they are tough to manage, overly anxious for rapid advancement, narcissistic and self-focused, impatient and ready to hop jobs at the drop of a hat if they do not get what they want.
Elements of this profile are true and young professionals born into the internet age definitely have a different world view and influences from their older colleagues. But the sweeping statements about who millennials are, are largely clichés. Nor is the entire generation convinced that they have it all figured out. Millennials are just as hungry to develop their skills and learn from their seniors as previous generations of professionals; and most do not hop jobs just to teach their old-style employers a lesson.
The young professionals interviewed for this article have divergent views on life and work. There is no universal truth here. But some interesting common threads emerge from these conversations with young people from Brazil, India, the US, Germany, the UK and The Philippines. They are all global citizens, living and working outside their home countries – in the EU, Asia, the Middle East, South America and the US.
This article addresses two questions: what do tomorrow’s leaders want and how do they see their current situations? And: what messages does tomorrow’s generation have for today’s business leaders about how they can improve their leadership style?
What do young professionals want?
The cliché of the mercurial job-hopping millennial is more of a logical reaction to today’s realities than a personality trait. Faced with a lack of long-term career prospects from employers, they are more easily motivated to move on if their current leadership does not listen and if they don’t feel valued.
One interviewee, a professional in a global media corporation, says that he and his peers are motivated by a combination of factors – salary, the opportunity to be involved in interesting projects, recognition of their skills, flexible work practices and access to mentors.
What leadership traits demotivate them? Senior managers who don’t listen to their younger counterparts and those who do and make them feel appreciated.
He believes that the ideal project blends the skills of younger and older talent to deliver optimal results. “The foundation is the knowledge base of senior management,” he says. “The rocket fuel is new perspectives and ideas from the new generations. They bring different perspectives. But ‘outside the box’ is innovative thinking for every age.”
Delegation is a key motivator, he says: “Show trust by giving me full responsibility for my project.”
All the professionals interviewed commented on the lack of flexibility – one of the highest-value factors for them in selecting the best positions. They ask leaders to stop prioritising presenteeism, making work-from-home common practice, make you feel like you’re an entrepreneur, and leave team members time to develop their own projects.
Other suggested zero-cost options guaranteed to boost motivation for colleagues: don’t schedule the first meeting at dawn; consider flexible holidays, time off to learn and work in another location; and put the priority on delivering agreed results and exceeding expectations over presenteeism.
It’s about more than money
“More money is not the driver for us,” says the youngest interviewee. “We are looking for a challenge, recognition of our professional skills and the opportunity to develop through our work.” She, an early-career professional, recently moved from Brussels to Beijing to progress in her career as a manager in international policy circles.
She explains that the temporary nature of work offered to young professionals means that they do not provide opportunity and professional challenges, which may push talented staff to look for new positions.
For her, the most valued aspects of the professional experience are “to be myself”, to voice her opinion and be heard; to be trusted by superiors; and to have a flexible work schedule. This includes the opportunity to manage people and work with leaders that support her to learn the skills to get there.
The future needs digital….and core leadership skills
As business becomes faster, more ambiguous and more complex, getting to digital is crucial for all companies. Senior management needs to embrace today’s digital moment. But this does not mean all young professionals are good at digital and can be hired only for these skills. Our media professional reminds us that: “behind digital is people, relationships, networks”.
What about the idea that the modern company cannot succeed without a heavy dose of young digital wizards actively disrupting and breaking the rules to transform the organisation?
One interviewee told us he sees many young firebrands burning out and leaving, some successfully…others very unsuccessfully”.
Today’s requirements for sound management and inspiring leadership are not so different from past practice, except for less long-term guarantees and job expectations, he says. “Reputation, skills and network are still the core. These are the same principles that make you successful.”
But the fact that core business approach is the same doesn’t mean that leaders can continue with business as usual. According to all those interviewed, there’s much room for improvement. Many senior managers are not walking the talk.
Another view of diversity in leadership
One interviewee is a marketing manager working in international development. She offers another view of diversity issues that she feels leaders are not addressing.
“Leadership needs to be more open-minded on work approaches and management styles. Companies pay attention to diversity of colour, gender and sexual orientation but there is a systemic and individual bias against differences in work style and personal strengths. This is also a part of diversity,” she comments.
Getting value from yesterday’s leaders and today’s talent
One scientist runs rural development projects in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. He sees that many of today’s leaders have developed their management styles based on peers and superiors in the 20th century; and they are not comfortable with the new generation of research professionals.
“Times have changed. Technology reduces the need for face-to-face interactions to work effectively. You can easily monitor staff productivity with technology. Today’s senior managers in my sector are struggling to relinquish control. Their reaction to change is more micro-management of tasks that are easily delegated or can be done with technology tools,” he explains.
Reflection on two inspiring leadership styles
A big data manager for a global research agency says he is happily living a very cool professional experience. He is managed and mentored by two leaders, each with a different style.
One is a hands-off relationship. They are located on different continents and meet face-to-face once yearly, with frequent phone conversations. “We discuss strategy over a beer, agree on expectations and how to get there”.
His other supervisor is more hands-on, requesting follow-up more frequently, tough and blunt at times – setting high standards. “He made his high expectations very clear from the outset; and people look up to him. He cares for his team and creates the best conditions for us.”
What’s the ‘other value’ in the job offer
Our finance manager and former Big-Four management consultant has seen first-hand the inner workings of large corporations and the personal challenge of motivating the teams he leads.
He echoes other interviewees saying that leaders are off-track if they see money as the prime motivator for young talent they are trying to attract. Many young people he sees want to give back and contribute to a greater good, such as climate action.
“Profit is an obvious goal for any organisation. But what is the other value you are offering them to participate in? This is very important to many young professionals.”
What has changed?
Taking stock of the reflections and experiences of these young professionals it seems that there are serious concerns that need to be addressed. Not so much in “handling millennials” but rather in having stronger and inspiring leadership. Change is needed – these young professionals need inspiration, trust (which is a two-way street) and belief in them. Without this, the adage of “job-hopping millennials” will become a truth.
Reading these stories, seasoned leaders might say that there’s nothing new here. Leadership has always been about addressing change, managing uncertainty, pushing innovation, and catching and motivating the best talent we can find.
They are correct.
And listening to the concerns of the enthusiastic professionals who provided input to this article, it seems that many of our leaders aren’t quite there yet!
Leadership for a better future:
This is one of a series of 13 practical articles on leadership written by the Future Work Forum (FWF) for the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD), an accreditation body for business schools globally with a membership of 30,000 management professionals. Our partners have contributed to a special edition of their Global Focus magazine.
About the Future Work Forum:
The FWF exists to explore the working world of tomorrow. It is a think tank and network of highly skilled experts who share a passion to create a better, more humanised workplace, inspiring a new generation of leaders.