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Leadership Development: Millennials Aren't From Mars

Millennials are important to companies' leadership pipelines but they're not a super-race that should be feted at the rest of the workforce's expense

Crowd of People Managers Employees Workers Customers SuppliersA lot of managers and business commentators single out millennials as the most important demographic slice of the employee population, and the one which must be most carefully wooed and managed.

And for good reason: by 2025 over 75 million baby boomers will have retired from the US workforce and by 2030 the US is likely to face a shortfall of 30 million workers. These demographic trends will repeat across the rest of the world. So not only will firms have less people to fill all types of vacancies, today’s millennial 20-somethings will be the ones staffing 2030’s leadership ranks.

On top of that, the work environment – how people get work done, and how they work with others – is changing more rapidly than ever before, and the number of unfamiliar markets in which firms must compete to ensure sufficient corporate growth are proliferating.

Millennial employees offer useful skills for these changeable times and, indeed, the potential to lead firms to new and unexpected heights in the next 10 to 15 years. Millennials are tech-savvy in ways that their older counterparts are not, they are incredibly comfortable with social and digital media (an important battleground for brands of all shapes and sizes), and – say most surveys on the topic – are better at multitasking than most.

They’re Not Super-Skilled Aliens

But, even though millennials may bring useful energy, vigor, and knowledge of new technology, they’re not a superior alien race that needs to be feted at the expense of the rest of the team. Each of the three generational groups in today’s workforce – baby boomers, generation X‘ers, and millennials – have different, and equally useful skills and competencies to offer.

To secure a strong leadership pipeline for the next 15 or 20 years, managers must learn to get the most from all three generations, and help all three groups work well together.

How the Three Generations Differ

SHL Talent Measurement data show that managers are right to see millennials as potential leaders: while 6.3% or 1 in 16 of the baby boomers in the workforce have the strongest level of potential to be leaders today, that rises to 7.4% or 1 in 13 for generation X’ers and 8.4% or 1 in 11 for millennials.

But that doesn’t mean to say that it will all fall into the collective millennial lap. Firms must develop and run the right learning and development programs if they want to get the most from their younger generations. SHL Talent Measurement data show how the three generations compare to one another in four important management activities (see chart 1).

There are only modest differences in each generation’s ability to create good ideas and proposals (“developing the vision”), and negligible differences in the talents required to socialize those ideas (“sharing the goals”). But there were significant differences between the talents required to mobilize others in support of ideas and proposals (“gaining support”) with the differences favoring the older generations, and in turning those ideas into action (“delivering success”) favoring younger generations.

Management and Leadership Traits

Chart 1: How the three generations compare in important management activities  Numbers represent percentile ranking  Source: SHL Talent Measurement analysis

How to Develop Leaders Using all Three Generations

So millennials seem great at getting things done but not so good at drumming up support for their ideas. Given how important “networked leadership” will be in the next couple of decades, this is clearly a blind spot that millennials’ employers must correct. And, from the data, the perfect people to share their skills and competencies that will provide that correction are the older generation of employees.

It is by understanding these kinds of differences that managers will be able to put the skills and experience throughout their workforce to good use, and develop the best leaders for their firm’s future. In fact, a previous post looked at ways to retain and engage millennials in the workforce, and the data discussed there showed that millennials are most motivated by “personal growth” (defined in the data as the “opportunity to learn and acquire skills, and for personal development”) and “progression” (defined in the data as the “opportunity for career progression and promotion”). So it would seem that not only do millennials need to learn more about how to muster support for their ideas and projects, they are eager to develop these exact leadership qualities.

The millennial generation is important to the world’s firms because of the lack of potential senior employees in 15 years’ time, and because millennials have skills that older generations lack. But firms will produce a much stronger set of leaders if they learn how to make the most of the skills  of all three generations.

Millennials aren’t from Mars and baby boomers aren’t from Venus; we’re all (still) on one planet and will make much better progress if we work together.


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