A new leadership paradigm

May 15, 2017

The transition from boomers to millennials is going to happen anyway, so put in a good-faith effort and make it a positive experience.

By 2020, 50 percent of the U.S. workforce will be millennials. In our industry, that number may actually be higher due to the retirement of baby boomers and the hit our industry incurred during the recession, when a large segment of mid-management employees were decimated.

The bottom-line? No matter how we feel as firm owners, our financial well-being is predicated upon millennials being engaged, productive, and loyal to the firm. Operationally, we need them, and we especially need them to relate to our current and future client base if we expect to transition leadership and responsibility to them.

So what should boomer business owners do?

  • Find common ground or at least middle ground.Millennial relationships may seem exasperatingly difficult at times because our professional and personal goals may vary. Traditionally, firms have managed from the top down. We were told what to do. But that approach utterly fails with a millennial workforce. Boomer owners must alter and compromise their management approach based on an understanding of what really drives millennials – knowledge, opportunity, and inclusion.
  • Show millennials the overall firm view. Money isn’t the only enticement for millennials. A top priority with this generation is honest and fair communication about all aspects of the firm. Millennials will accept bad news if they understand the rationale regarding that news. While older owners may want to hold onto financial and other key operational data, millennials want to understand how the business is doing, right down to the firm’s balance sheet.
  • Define a clear career path. Most millennials want to know what the future holds. If they fit in with the firm’s values and culture, then they must be told about the opportunities that they will be afforded based on their performance. Millennials are prepared to make financial sacrifices if their goals aren’t being met, and that includes leaving your firm if you don’t understand them. Just as important as presenting opportunities, it is a disservice to not be candid with a millennial who is trying to fit in but obviously doesn’t. Be honest with that individual about his or her future.
  • Engage millennials in direct conversations. Make yourself accessible. Create and participate in mentor-protégé programs, alter your work space to create an open office environment, or simply engage your younger staff in conversation. The key is to develop a work environment which fosters collaboration and communication – two things that millennials seek.
  • Empower millennials to make change. Create an environment where ideas related to change are valued. This requires the acceptance of the suggestion of change and open evaluation, discussion, and reporting of why or why not the change will be implemented. The process must also be lacking in bureaucratic red tape which may mean that you need to create a flatter organizational structure which is another desire of millennials.
  • Recognize the importance of community service. Engagement with the community is an important goal for most millennials. Therefore, providing opportunities for them to combine work with community service can be beneficial for both the employee and the firm. Initiate community service days, create matching charitable contribution programs, or support participation in non-profit organizations. The demands on the firm can be minimal compared to the increased goodwill generated with your millennials and the public relations benefit for the firm.
  • Provide training. Just as important as providing millennials with career opportunities is providing them with the training to develop the skills necessary to advance their careers and especially to lead and manage your firm. Learning through the school of hard knocks as many of us did is an antiquated approach. Do you really want anyone to relive all the headaches you faced during your career? Develop in-house training, utilize external resources, and encourage peer-to-peer and mentor-protégé engagement. It is better to provide too much training than too little.
  • Provide clear ownership transition. If you are truly intent on growing opportunities for your millennial workforce, and exiting your leadership role, demonstrate that by establishing a “sell date” for your ownership position. Promote those who deserve to lead, but don’t promote them based strictly on their tenure or age. Be diverse in your promotions and avoid social promotions at all cost.
  • Be willing to take a risk. We were all young once and, whether we remember it or not, we were different than the generation before us. We should not approach this generational transition facing our industry as the problem with millennials, but as the opportunity presented by millennials. Those firms that change in response to this opportunity will be the firms that are successful in the future.

Millennials look at the world holistically versus work and life as separate and distinct entities. Recognize the value of their vision and bring them into your conversations. Establishing trust, mentoring their growth, charting their future opportunities – these are steps that are incumbent on the current leadership of boomer owners.

Stephen Lucy is CEO of JQ with offices in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and Lubbock, Texas. Contact him at slucy@jqeng.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.