Millennials quickly eclipsed Gen-Xers to become the largest cohort in the U.S. labor force in 2016. From the 62% already in managerial roles in March 2020, the swelling numbers of millennial leaders are shifting the balance of power.
However, a significant transfer of power is not easily accomplished at the best of times. To facilitate effective transformation to technology-driven but human-centric future-of-work environments, cross-generational dialogue and cooperation are essential to achieve sustainable growth.
Rising, resisting and retiring
Millennials are the first cohort of digital natives, born between 1981 and 1996 and have been disrupting the workplace since they entered the labor market. They instinctively embraced—if not initially recognized—the digitally catalyzed paradigm shift in process. They started pushing to benefit from new platforms and applications to work more effectively—smarter not longer—in more flexible ways. They developed more team-based expertise to better accomplish the growing number of projects they were being tasked with. At the same time, millennials are on the receiving end of the “great transfer of wealth,” and are expected to inherit over $68 trillion from their boomer parents by 2030. This growing financial clout as consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors is increasing their influence.
Meanwhile, boomers—born between 1946 and 1964—in leadership roles have spent decades rising through the ranks using traditional management modes and methods. Their experience played a significant role in successfully adapting to survive the crisis: integrating new platforms and applications, adopting remote work arrangements, and repeatedly pivoting.
But most have been waiting to resume “normal” business operations and reinstate prepandemic rules and practices. Others have been retiring, whether to recalibrate their lives or to deal with exhaustion from battling business and supply chain disruptions. The portion of retirees among adults 55 and older increased from 48.1% to 50.3% between third quarter 2019 and 2021, growing by 3.5 million.
Labels are typically not helpful or appropriate as everyone is certainly an individual first. However, age groups often demonstrate different generalizable relationships with technology depending on their digital education during childhood. Having more early familiarity with smart devices and without entrenched rigid operational routines and approaches to “unlearn,” millennials are inherently predisposed to assess and respond to the evolving needs of highly digitalized businesses better than older generations.
SAP and Oxford Economic’s “Leaders 2020” study of the best-managed companies, run by executives who were adapting successfully for the growing digital economy, found intriguing generational discrepancies. Only 37% of millennial executives felt senior leaders were “highly proficient” at using technology to achieve competitive advantage or navigating a changing business environment, while 60% and 57% respectively of older executives felt they were.
The disparities in perceived readiness for the digital economy mean millennial leaders’ recommendations are achieving prominence, now sounding most relevant as they consider more significant transformation strategies and take bolder steps to advance.
Since their initial entry into the labor market, millennials have also been experiencing the flip side of a more dynamic, complex, and uncertain digitally powered business world as they progress professionally. Companies need to be more adaptive and agile, which has exacerbated already tenuous job situations, while employees must keep upskilling to stay competitive as they self-manage their nonlinear career pathways. Recognizing the realities of the new ecosystem and taking advantage of changes in the workplace, millennials are making proactive adjustments to reconfigure and rebalance their working lives. As a result, those with over five years’ experience are disproportionately represented in the ongoing Great Resignation.
New dynamics of power
Leadership styles have also been changing over recent years as organizations flatten and responsibility shifts closer to the front lines to achieve the required operational responsiveness. Leaders are coaching rather than commanding in order to engage employees while helping them navigate uncharted waters, oversee their development, and nurture their ongoing upskilling. These corporate executives and managers must now urgently craft and agree to long-term business models, strategies, and work arrangements appropriate for current and trending conditions.
But, this transfer of power isn’t a battle to be won or lost, nor is it destined to be smooth, now that it was accelerated by the pandemic. Dissent and discord create tension and confusion and waste time and energy better spent figuring out next steps. But persuasion should not be coercion. Rising voices should not drown out others’ challenges and concerns. Soliciting all inputs elevates meaningful issues to stimulate useful debate that enhances solutions and results in more comprehensive adaptations.
No single generation, executive, or manager has all the answers. Rising leaders need to include everyone in the conversation, to ensure they are encouraged and respected and that their contributions are heard and debated. Harnessing the potential of your organization’s collective brain trust is essential to benefit fully from the diversity of business experiences, managerial capabilities, technology understanding, and different perspectives. The key is to acknowledge where we are, what is likely ahead, and the fundamentals of how things inevitably must progress. There are five key ways to be an inclusive leader and foster productive practices that bring everyone along.
Use “first principles”: Gather a diverse group, including multigenerational participants, to acknowledge and discuss the identified characteristics of today’s business landscape and anticipated trends. Use a first-principles approach to prompt everyone to step back from current operations and systems. Imagine a blank slate; brainstorm and debate what approaches, processes, and practices could be most appropriate to serve customers’ (changing) needs. Looking forward, not backward, with a fresh perspective, helps align and unite everyone in a constructive way.
Model open-mindedness: Encourage everyone to participate and share their ideas by welcoming and considering all contributions. In setting the example and confirming that each person’s opinion is desired and respected, you foster inclusion; and every member of your ecosystem is prompted to value, not dismiss, others’ suggestions. Facilitate group meetings as the leader to ensure each attendee feels comfortable and has a chance to speak, prompting meeting attendees to build on each other’s ideas using phrases like, “Great point, and . . . .”
Focus on results: Energize the shift to value performance over presence by emphasizing outcomes for projects and compensation assessments, reducing potential judgments about where employees are and assumptions about what process and deliverable format are appropriate. Support each employee’s discovery of their preferences—such as whether they work better early morning or late at night, in secluded or team settings—helping them align toward their optimized ways of working. Your newest recruits may also benefit from guidance about effective options to try.
Practice empathy: Recognize the different points of view of those you are working with and for. Connect with their experiences to better understand them, improving communications and collaboration, and reducing conflict. Listen actively to your boss, direct reports, and partners and ask questions to confirm and clarify their words and intentions, such as “Did I understand correctly that you meant . . . ?” Model behavior that promotes inclusive discussion and productive results.
Find common ground: Develop connections with customers, coworkers, and vendors that build trust-based relationships by exploring mutual interests, such as favorite TV shows, sports teams, or hobbies. Create shared memories participating together in corporate and community activities. Identify topics where you sit on the same side of the table to deepen bonds. If differences arise, you can remind each other of shared opinions to stimulate a willingness to find solutions.
Clusters of high-performing digitally integrated companies will achieve disproportionate success but also, ultimately, be limited within an unevenly distributed suboptimally functioning ecosystem. Within organizations, as well as up and down the supply chain, adaptive groups will experience the same constraints. As a rising leader, make efforts to ensure that new power dynamics incorporate inclusive mindsets and open approaches. Then you can encourage every employee’s full contributions, and your business ecosystem adapts to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.