Here they come!

Nov 05, 2018

Approximately 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day over the next decade. By 2030, millennials will comprise three-quarters of the U.S. workforce.

A common blood sport at leadership team meetings these days begins with, “WHAT do we do with these bleeping millennials?!!” For many years, millennials, born between 1981 and 1996 to baby boomer parents, were seen as different versions of the leaders’ children. They were, after all, children.

They are no longer children. In fact, they have occupied the workforce for more than 16 years. Baby boomers now find themselves wondering how to develop the rising force of millennials as they vie for leadership roles.

The rising force. Approximately 10,000 baby boomers will retire every day over the next decade. By 2030, millennials will comprise three-quarters of the U.S. workforce. With 78 million members, their expanding influence cannot be ignored. In view of this trend, companies are grappling with how to accelerate their leadership development and address generational priorities.

Millennials grew up in the hyperconnected world of the internet. They invented social media, giving individuals unprecedented power to share information, offer opinions, and solicit support for favorite causes. They also, to the chagrin of their elders, demand authority to make decisions that affect them.

With such assertiveness, how do you transition millennials into leadership roles in organizations where traditional lines of authority, years in service, and deferential communication have guided leadership behaviors and choices?

Bringing up millennial leaders. Here are some ideas to embrace and optimize millennial leadership development:

  1. Cultivate the art of listening. Developing talent starts with understanding what motivates people. That means effective communication. It’s one thing to hear, it’s another to listen without prejudicial filters. Everyone is influenced in what they hear by their needs, experiences, and fears. Younger generation members don’t buy the argument that leadership roles require years of experience. That upsets current leaders. It dampens their hearing, cutting them off from promising ideas offered by fast-moving, information-hungry millennials. Millennials want their opinions heard. Leaders who ignore them discourage emerging talent. They can also find their refusal to listen described in unflattering terms throughout social media. No doubt, the rules of interaction have changed. While the older workers have worked in chain of command cultures where leaders ruled the day, millennials prize engagement at all levels. It can lead to healthy, albeit sometimes painful, dialogue. It also generates information, learning, and fresh ideas.
  2. Don’t assume they don’t care about business results. Today’s leaders often assume business results don’t matter to millennials, much less leading the charge to achieve them. In reality, results do interest millennials, given the right conditions. Knowing what an organization wants to achieve is a critical driver of results. In a 2017 Partners in Leadership Workplace Accountability Study, 85 percent of more than 40,000 participants across all ages could not answer that question for their organizations. Millennials particularly want to know the “why” behind an organization’s priorities to make sense of what they do. Engaging them requires winning buy-in for company initiatives, allowing them to view their participation as a personal choice.
  3. Start ceding territory. Millennials want to be hands-on, collaborative, and involved. They value openness, transparency, and a say in decision-making. These priorities threaten leaders accustomed to protecting their turf, selectively involving younger workers or limiting information to maintain control. Leadership development involves a phased transfer of control. For executives who over-identify with their leadership roles, that can be challenging. They equate surrendering authority with a loss of power and identity. To rediscover who they are as people rather than leaders is important to leadership transition. In the meantime, failure to start an orderly transfer of authority can impair the emergence of new leaders, and the best candidates might leave.
  4. Accelerate sharing the wisdom of experience. In a culture biased toward youth and instant gratification, older generations underestimate the importance of experience. Living through multiple project blow-ups, unhappy clients, and dysfunctional behavior is a great teacher. Too often, in an effort to move on, they forget what those experiences taught them.

Current leaders have much to share, as long as they don’t sound like parents when they do so. Emerging leadership programs that focus on building experience with cross-functionalized “action learning” have been shown to enjoy a high rate of retention and promotions. They also reinforce the idea that experience has not lost its value.

Millennials will eventually lead the business world. Seeing their emergence as an opportunity to learn and evolve will benefit not just them, but all generations.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 16 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the discomfort and excitement of the new as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None and The Journal of Not Knowing. She can be reached at

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