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What Do Next-Generation Leaders Look Like?

The current formula to develop future organizational leaders is to identify high potentials for management roles and provide them with leadership development opportunities. Yet senior leaders who attend programs at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), an executive education company, often tell trainers they would have benefited from formal leadership development earlier in their lives. While learning more about themselves and their leadership skills is seen as valuable at any age or career stage, they recognize ways they could have used leadership knowledge and enhanced self-awareness during their younger years, and the added value that might have accrued from building a learning orientation early on.

Prompted by this idea, CCL posed a set of questions on leadership and leadership development in 2012 via an online survey to business, government, nonprofit and education leaders. Approximately 500 people from all economic sectors, at all organizational levels and across the age range responded. The survey explored when young people should be exposed to leadership development, what leadership qualities managers want in young people entering the workforce and what excites and concerns managers about young people they employ.

Most Important Competencies:

Past, Present and Future

Ninety percent of respondents across all age groups said they believed leadership development should start before age 18, with 50 percent choosing elementary school age or earlier (Figure 1). Ninety-seven percent said it should start by age 21. Contrast this with the fact that many people never participate in formal leadership development, and most don’t have the opportunity until after they’re promoted into management.

Given this, are young people coming into today’s workforce with competencies that prepare them to lead? The CCL survey addressed this question by asking respondents to choose the top three leadership qualities needed now for young people entering the workforce; seen as important for entering the workforce 20 years ago; and important for youth entering the workforce 10 years from now.

Figure 2 shows the five capabilities respondents chose most often for youth entering the workforce today and those seen as important 20 years ago. In terms of qualities needed today, self-motivation/discipline and effective communication skills were picked most frequently, followed by learning agility, self-awareness and adaptability.

Looking back 20 years, self-motivation or discipline and effective communication were also among the top five. However, the highest-frequency choice was technical mastery — a competency not among the top five today.

Other skills in demand 20 years ago but not as much today include confidence and resourcefulness. This isn’t to say these qualities are no longer valued, but only that they’ve been replaced as top priorities by learning agility, self-awareness and adaptability — the latter three increasing in importance in the volatile, global context in which most organizations operate today.

These competencies should be assessed as part of the recruitment and hiring process and further developed as part of a leadership development process initiated early on for entry-level employees. Further, this leadership development process should include formal programs — perhaps focused on communication and self-awareness — attention to assignments that build learning agility and adaptability, and mentoring to enhance motivation and self-discipline.

Looking at what survey respondents believe will be most important in the future provides insight into what necessary skills may endure over time, and the data underscores the importance of several skill areas (Figure 3). The qualities respondents listed as important for 10 years from now include adaptability/versatility, effective communication, learning agility and self-motivation and discipline.

Effective communication, self-motivation and discipline appear on all three lists, representing core, enduring capabilities that should be a development focus for young people. Two competencies appear on the future top list: multicultural awareness and collaboration. These skills can be developed early in life or career through experiences on diverse teams and on projects with a global focus.

Going forward, it will be important for learning leaders to ensure young employees are exposed to multicultural and collaborative work tasks as part of, or as a supplement to, their normal job assignments. Coupled with the timeline comparison, respondents were asked what excites and concerns them about the next generation of young leaders (Figures 4 and 5).

The list in Figure 4 recognizes a broad set of skills young people are demonstrating. Many of these — multicultural awareness, adaptability, collaboration — reflect the competencies seen as important in today’s entry-level employees and for those entering the workforce in the future. Others, such as connection to social networks, creativity, tolerance and the ability to work across boundaries, are important in making collaboration work. Those capabilities combined with multicultural awareness situate this generation favorably when it comes to the ability to lead in the face of future global challenges.

Youth in today’s workforce seem well-poised in terms of many competencies important for leaders 10 years from now, as well as those needed now. However, Figure 5 details which respondents’ concerns add an important dimension to the results.

The top concern focuses on the sense of entitlement young people appear to have. Entitlement and lack of work ethic were often mentioned together as chief concerns. The sense of entitlement respondents report is often blamed on how this generation was raised — for example, too often rewarded for participation rather than performance. Many commented that young people need to realize they must accumulate experience, pay their dues and be patient. Items that are contradictory include “energy, enthusiasm and work ethic” listed as a quality people are excited about, while “they lack a strong work ethic/drive” is a top concern. This may reflect different experiences managers have had, and is a reminder that the younger workforce is as diverse as any other population segment.

Respondents also agree on the competencies they would like to see developed in young people. One of the most desired, the ability to communicate effectively, is one of the most significant respondent concerns. The inability to communicate face-to-face is most often paired with a comment that youth are over-dependent on technology for communication.

Survey respondents also expressed concern about potential leaders not getting the development needed to thrive in a difficult future. They said they see few visible positive role models for youth amid a sea of negative ones. Others said young people aren’t getting the coaching and mentoring they need to equip them to lead in a future filled with complex problems. Employers and an educational system overly focused on test results may share culpability.

Despite this, leaders see potential in the next generation. Yet young people in the workforce have significant learning needs and aren’t getting the leadership development they need.

What Does This Mean for CLOs?

Leaders see youth having many of the basic elements of leadership already in place. Further, these young people may have received more formal leadership development in high school and college than their older co-workers and bosses did, and they are ready for more.

Learning leaders who want to develop this group of talented young people rather than suppress their ideas and block their enthusiasm can start by offering two-way, cross-generational leadership mentoring. Organizations have a cadre of young people who are comfortable with technology and the rapid pace of change, have multicultural awareness and adaptability, and are willing to learn and eager to make a difference. Organizations need these skills in their employees and in their leaders.

Youth also can offer lessons to their longer-tenured bosses and co-workers in mentoring. Similarly, experienced leaders can offer youth career mentoring and individual coaching for greater effectiveness. While not everyone is well-suited to be a mentor — good mentoring requires openness to learning — mentor training can help people gain the self-awareness and skills to be effective, regardless of age or experience. Working together, aspiring and established leaders alike will have an opportunity to enhance their abilities to cross boundaries, learn from differences and increase their openness to the views and needs of others.

Organizations can benefit from established leaders helping youth channel their ideas and enthusiasm in ways that promote innovation. A well-executed, cross-generational mentoring program can increase retention of young, high-potential employees and promote enthusiasm for work in organizational elders.

Ellen Van Velsor is a senior fellow, and Joel Wright is director of early leadership development in research and innovation at the Center for Creative Leadership. They can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.