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Millennials as Leaders – A Crucial Competency Gap to Fill Now

By Casey Kobilka and James Atkinson

This article is from the Q1 2017 issue of Fi|r|st: The CEB Journal of Finance|Risk|Strategy


The common wisdom on managing millennial employees completely overlooks an important reality: one in every four of them has reached the director level or above (figure 1). That sounds surprising but shouldn’t, given that this generation’s vanguard is now approaching 40.

Members of the cohort, born between 1980 and 2000, are continuing to move up as increasing numbers of baby boomers retire. The average millennial has been promoted three times in the past five years, according to a study by The Conference Board and Development Dimensions International.

Millennials Need Support Now with Day-to-Day Leadership Skills

Companies must widen their focus on retaining millennials and give them experiences and training opportunities to develop as leaders. Because they’re already taking places on higher rungs of the corporate ladder, millennials need this help now in a very specific area before the impact potentially damages the company.

The typical millennial is significantly lacking in 3 of the 12 competencies that make an effective enterprise leader. And together, those weak spots reveal a gap in the type of leadership that keeps the organization operating smoothly from day to day and on course through significant shifts (figure 2).

In general, according to our study of employees who were identified as leaders by their organizations, millennials struggle with transactional skills such as:

  • Adapting to change and coping with pressure,
  • Supporting others and working effectively with people, and
  • Planning and working in an organized manner to execute efficiently

This significant skill gap is a problem that most companies haven’t had to deal with on a large scale for at least two generations.

Right now, with all three generations involved in leadership, a healthy synergy can exist. Baby boomer strengths make up for what the millennial generation lacks, and vice versa.

But the clock is ticking. By 2024, millennials are likely to make up 44% of the workforce. So now is the time to help this generation become exceptional enterprise leaders and overcome their deficiencies so they can take sprawling, increasingly complex companies into the future.

The following tips will help prepare millennials for their current leadership roles and also strengthen your millennial leadership bench.

1. Help Millennials Adapt to Change and Deal with Pressure

Eight in 10 millennials are not proficient at adapting (figure 3), and 7 in 10 don’t believe they have enough support to adapt to change at their organization. Yet 73% of organizations expect more change than ever over the next three years.

Instill confidence in your millennial leaders and future leaders so that they can cope with the challenges presented by change.

You can take advantage of millennials’ social media mind-set. Offer them a platform to share and promote peer progress and success stories about transitions. This approach will support them in their future leadership roles by making change goals seem more attainable.

Helpful story elements include:

  • Specifics about where they gathered resources and whom they consulted for help,
  • Pitfalls to avoid, and
  • Mistakes they made and how they overcame them.

Next, use scenarios and simulations to help prepare them for pressure and uncertainty.

When they reach senior leadership, millennials will need to make risky, in-the-moment decisions about new products and new markets. They will need to respond to new regulations and be able to navigate turbulent geopolitical and financial market shifts.

The learning and development team at one insurance company held a week of training and told the participating senior leaders that it would include a number of challenges—some of them real, and some of them simulations. This blurred line maintained the pressure as they encountered situations that at times involved external stakeholders and even actors. Debriefing afterward in large and small groups helped the leaders think about lessons for the organization and for themselves to make strong decisions under stress.

2. Develop Millennials to Support Others and Collaborate

Leaders need to work effectively with others and support their direct reports, yet only one in three millennials (29%) can support and collaborate well. This shortcoming likely stems from their tendency to be more competitive than other generations, a pattern that was uncovered in a 2012 CEB SHL report based on hundreds of thousands of survey responses.

Millennials also don’t trust the people they work with, as 37% trust only themselves to accurately complete a work assignment. And if millennials can’t trust others with important tasks, they will not be able to delegate, presenting a huge barrier for those in leadership positions.

To help millennials prepare for leader-ship roles, create an environment that supports active collaboration and eliminates barriers to knowledge sharing.

When one law firm recognized that collaboration among partners bred more success than competition did, the firm changed the performance review process accordingly. It added a new metric, “contribution to the success of others” to the review. And as part of the self-evaluation, each partner awarded points to others who had helped him or her and described the nature of that support. This way, each partner reflected on the importance of working together, and each was rated on how well he or she collaborated based on peer ratings.

3. Build Millennials’ Ability to Organize and Execute Efficiently

Currently, fewer than one in five millennials is considered effective at planning, organizing, and executing efficiently (figure 4).

An inability to prioritize might be the problem for millennials, as only half of them agree that they know how to do this, compared with 71% of older generations.

Help millennials choose tasks that matter most to company growth, and then build strong personalized connections between their work and organizational strategy.

One tactic to consider is a bottom-up goal alignment process. One food company tried this approach with junior staff to help them learn prioritizing at an early stage in their career, serving them well as they move up. Typically employees are told how their individual performance objectives tie to those of the enterprise. But try asking employees to do it themselves. They should first link each target to the wider organizational strategy on their own, and then their manager can make additions or corrections. This helps employees gain a richer understanding of the relevance of their goals and how company strategy applies to their daily workflows.

A different method applies the same philosophy. Managers can move away from simply telling employees which tasks to focus on and have their reports decide as a team. At meetings, the staff discuss day-to-day tasks and then rate each one based on its impact on metrics and how it achieves organizational objectives (figure 5).

The Benefits of Acting Now

Improving these millennial leadership skill gaps will take dedicated time and effort. But without building these transactional skills, your organization will have difficulty delivering dependable performance.

To operate effectively, companies must build well-rounded management teams with all 12 enterprise-leader competencies. Otherwise, they run the risk of:

  • Conflicting business strategies,
  • Less effective cross-functional projects, and
  • Competition for resources and talent throughout the enterprise.

The best companies aren’t waiting until it gets to that point. They are proactively diagnosing what competencies their leadership teams lack.

Next Steps

Our Enterprise Leadership Assessment evaluates and benchmarks your leaders against the 12 competencies. Use the results to design targeted leadership development initiatives at individual and organizational levels. Learn more at


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