Millennials already represent more than half the workforce - and now they're taking over management roles. This is how millennial values are changing leadership as we know it.
Millennials are quickly becoming the most present population in the workforce – and in leadership roles. According to research by the Pew Research Center, by 2030 “all members of the Baby Boom generation” will have reached the retirement age of 65–with an average of 10,000 Baby Boomers reaching retirement age every day between now and then. By contrast, in 2014 millennials already represented a majority of the workforce, with more than half in management roles.
But they are not content to take up the leadership style that has preceded them. More than a third of millennials surveyed believed that within 10 years, “the CEO role will no longer be relevant in its current format.” This may stem from the fact that while 91% of millennials said they aspire to leadership roles, 83% would also prefer to work for companies with fewer layers of management – indicating that millennials are seeking out a less hierarchical approach to leadership. In this first of a three part series, I’ll be exploring what leadership means to millennials and how that perspective is transforming the culture of work.
Here are four core tenets of the millennial leadership style, and a few examples of how those tenets are playing out in the companies they are founding:
Evolution of the “Hero CEO” Archetype
Millennial leaders demonstrate little interest in the idea of an imposing, infallible CEO. They instead value traits of humility, openness and continual learning, promoting the importance of recognizing both your strengths and your weaknesses.
Leigh Gallagher, author of a book documenting the success of sharing economy startup Airbnb, said of its millennial cofounder: “Those who know Chesky say he is relentlessly asking questions, taking notes, and trying to identify ways he can improve.” Similarly, Brian D Evans, millennial, Inc 500 Entrepreneur, and Forbes’ #7 marketing influencer in the world, says, “I allow myself to constantly be a student, rather than believing I’m the master of something. This hunger for more knowledge enables me to be open minded and discover ideas, inspiration and techniques in unsuspecting ways and places.”
Part of Chesky’s drive for continual learning was motivated by his lack of formal business training or experience. Which belies another millennial trend – they emphasize the importance of leaders demonstrating soft skills like emotional intelligence over industry expertise or domain knowledge. Gerard Adams is one of the millennial cofounders of Elite Daily, a New York-based media company that sold to the Daily Mail for $40 – 50 million in 2015, only three years after its founding. After the sale of the Daily Mail, Gerard started Fownders, a startup accelerator located in Newark’s Central Ward. The program focuses first on helping its entrepreneurs grow their soft skills like emotional quotient, mindset and collaboration – before teaching them more technical skills like digital marketing, testing and deployment. Says Gerard of Fownders, “We consider ourselves more of a ‘human accelerator.’ Every day, we’re working on you as a human being, and really bringing that personal development aspect to our curriculum.”
Emphasis on collaboration and flexibility over hierarchy and structure
Millennial leaders are quick to question policy for policy’s sake. They expect both leaders and employees to be willing to examine and adjust policies that no longer appear to add value. Spotify, the Swedish music streaming company founded by Daniel Ek, structured their organization around this very principle. They are a fully agile company that began with a Scrum framework. As they expanded and grew, they found that some aspects of the Scrum framework weren’t working well for their company. So they eliminated them, and designed a new agile structure they called “Squads”.
Formal hierarchies and robust structure or process also appear limiting to millennial leaders. Flat organizations allow individuals to continuously explore, learn and grow, following non-traditional career paths through lateral or upward moves. About 75% of millennials said that a successful business “should be flexible and fluid in the face of volatile working environments and not enforce a rigid structure on employees.”
Collaboration across flat hierarchies also enables leaders to avoid losing familiarity with the challenges their employees across teams face, incorporating the thoughts and experiences beyond management into decision making. Spotify, again, serves as a strong example. They organize their “Squad” teams around the principles of autonomy, alignment, and collective ownership. Each Squad, comprised of less than eight members, is empowered to make decisions about what to build, how to build it, and how to work together during the build without relying on formal approvals from managers and committees.
Doubling down on servant leadership
Nearly 50% of millennials stated that they believed leadership is the empowerment of others. Meanwhile, only 10% cited legacy as a primary attraction of leadership, and only 5% said they sought out leadership roles for the financial gain. The ideals of collective leadership and empowerment of employees permeates the statements and actions of prominent millennial leaders. Peter Cashmore founded Mashable, the digital media company focused on tech, in the UK in 2005. He shares his perspective on the core skill core of leadership: “The talent that has to be learned is finding out what someone’s passion is and setting them up to realize that. You don’t get the best work from people if you’re guiding them versus them guiding themselves.”
Just as Gerard used his success at Elite Daily to focus on helping younger entrepreneurs, Michelle Phan, influential Youtube blogger and founder of beauty subscription box Ipsy, leveraged her influence to help others follow in her footsteps. Phan launched Ipsy open studios, a content creation platform that offers aspiring beauty vloggers free production resources to help foster developing future stars of the beauty industry. Brian D Evans did the same. As he describes, “I created Influencive to put all those missing pieces, all those secrets in my head in one place. And I attracted some other incredible entrepreneurs along the way to contribute their mind as well.”
Aligning work and life values
According to a Deloitte study, millennials “are transforming the status quo by seeking purpose in the organizations they serve without sacrificing the flexibility to be who they are at work and live a fulfilling life outside of it.” Millennial leaders build companies around personal passion and social purpose, and prioritize a positive work/life balance. As the line between work and personal life are blurred, the ability to connect company values to personal values becomes critical. Millennial leaders – and employees – prioritize social value over financial value. 81% say that a successful business “will have a genuine purpose that resonates with people.” In fact, recent research found that millennials were the most socially conscious generation since the 1960s.
Actress turned entrepreneur Jessica Alba created The Honest Company with the stated purpose of promoting ethical and non-toxic products. Phan cites her personal values as the core driver for her business success: “There is a lesson to focus on being happy and not on money. At the end of the day happiness will bring you real wealth that you can never buy…I knew I wanted to inspire women and build confidence, so everything was built around that goal.” Renowned investor Warren Buffet said of Chesky, “[Brian Chesky] feels it all the way through. I think he would be doing what he’s doing if he didn’t get paid a dime for it.” In fact, Chesky and his cofounders at Spotify were focused on values from the beginning – and the company still requires all interviewees to go through a set of “core values” interviews in addition to those specific to their role.
As millennials continue to take on more management and leadership roles, we can likely anticipate even greater visibility and permeation of these values, as expressed by millennials and demonstrated by their age’s entrepreneurs. In the next article of this series, I’ll explore what it means to groom and manage millennial leaders.