A few months ago, I read a report on how women and millennial leaders are better for business, and, as you can imagine, it was music to my ears. The study revealed that having millennials in leadership roles affects an organization’s growth. Companies with aggressive growth had a higher proportion of millennials and were also more financially successful. When asked to provide an example, the authors pointed to companies such as Google and Facebook. All good news, right? Eh. Hard to say. Josh Bersin brought up a great point in a recent Forbes article: Millennials will soon rule the world; but how will they lead?
I interviewed Joris Merks-Benjaminsen, author of “Think And Grow Digital: What the Net Generation Needs to Know to Survive and Thrive in Any Organization” to find out whether Gen Y is ready for leadership roles — and what learning leaders can do to help them. Merks-Benjaminsen worked in several media, advertising and research businesses before he joined Google in 2010 as head of digital transformation, helping top companies embed digital thinking in their strategies.Below are edited excerpts from our interview.
You’ve written a whole book about it, but let’s try to summarize. What does the “Net Generation,” Gen Y, need to know to survive and thrive in any organization? What big themes stand out?
Merks-Benjaminsen: First of all, I believe it is important for Gen Y to know that companies urgently need their unique skills. Almost all companies are in some process of digital change: democratization of information, connectivity and increase of computing power are three digital trends that affect almost all companies. In my work, I speak to CEOs of the biggest brands and almost all of them are conscious of these trends and want their companies to grow digital. They are very aware competition is around the corner if they don’t move along with the digital landscape.
Despite the wish for change CEOs have, digital transformation goes slow because changing a big company is generally hard. For digital change there is an additional complexity: A lot of the knowledge on how to use Internet and new technology is found in the heads of Gen Y, the youngest professionals in the company whom are digital natives because they grew up with the internet and technology from very young age. These folks enter companies with new ideas and a fresh mindset, however still need to earn their credits with established professionals. If youngsters are new in a company and want to change too much too fast they risk bumping into a wall of resistance. Not everyone likes change and new innovations may cannibalize on existing business. Budgets and jobs may need to shift between teams. Change may therefore lead to politics and politics are hard to assess and influence if you are relatively new to a company. On top of that, ideas of young professionals may be perceived as naive thoughts of an inexperienced newbie.
From your experience and research, what are Gen Y’s thoughts on leadership? What leadership traits to they possess? What do they expect from leadership?
Merks-Benjaminsen: I believe Gen Y is a generation with independent minds and with people that have learnt to be critical with information. They grew up in a world with complete transparency and an overload of information, which means they understand deeply how different information sources can be completely conflicting. They have built the skill of filtering and weighting relevant information fast to draw their own conclusions.
The way Gen Y uses information affects how they view leadership. They expect transparency and a solid rationale behind decisions, so they can assess information themselves to validate the conclusions drawn by seniors. On top of that, they expect to get the freedom to decide what actions to take based on their own interpretation of the facts. Top-down decisions without meaningful rationale are unlikely to find support. On the other hand, if seniors do offer transparency and allow for freedom of interpretation, they can expect Gen Y professionals to take on work and projects with great responsibility.
Gen Y definitely has traits that are useful to exercise leadership. They dare to make their own decisions even when confronted with ambiguous information. They don’t just work because they are paid, but want to find purpose and passion in their work. Purpose, passion and the ability to make decisions when facing complexity are traits that help you exercise leadership even if you are not the formal leader. This is great because many millennials are in a position where they have to drive change from relatively junior roles. So they need to get people to join their quest based on leadership rather than authority. They definitely have talents to do so successfully.
It’s a popular thought that Gen Y think they’re ready for leadership but might not be. What’s your thought on this? What kind of leadership development do you think they need?
Merks-Benjaminsen: I estimate the biggest risk for Gen Y is being over courageous. This is partly a trait for it allows them to think big and drive fundamental innovation rather than focusing on small incremental steps. However, if this audacious nature is not balanced with the right tactics and the ability to connect with all types of people from any generation they risk losing support from important people (or may never get it). If that happens it will become very hard or maybe even impossible to drive big changes, for truly big innovations are rarely achieved alone.
So I’d say most important is to learn how to bring people together and join their skills and knowledge, so they can build on each other. That means Gen Y needs to learn to navigate politics, learn to negotiate and find common ground and know how to keep people engaged and motivated to contribute to the common cause. Finally, it is important to learn embedding great and wild ideas in the strategic context of the company and see the broader trade offs a company needs to make for each new idea it embraces.
It’s also a common discussion that Gen Y is shaking up the workplace, demanding more flexibility. How can leaders make sure that they’re catering to their top Gen Y talent but not offending or leaving out other generations that might not have the same wants, or Gen Y that have a more “traditional” work mindset?
Merks-Benjaminsen: The skills I mentioned that are important to acquire for Gen Y are all skills that typically come with years of experience. This means there is a lot of value in having Gen Y professionals work closely with senior professionals on a day-to-day basis. In my book, I therefore propose a two-way mentorship linking talented Gen Y professionals to senior managers.
Such a mentorship program would have many advantages for the company, for the juniors and for the seniors. First of all, digital knowledge distributes better throughout the organization and gets embedded in company strategy. Being linked to a senior decision-maker and coach offers Gen Y a platform to voice their ideas, to verify and optimize them. Seniors can help connecting Gen Y professionals to the right people in the organization so the best ideas can be implemented making Gen Y the desired driver of digital change. This offers Gen Y professionals unique learning opportunities hence it becomes easier for the company to attract and retain those people needed for the company to survive the 21st century. For senior professionals, a program like this offers the opportunity to drive change without having to do all the legwork. Finally, being a coach of a young talented driver of change can be highly rewarding.
Filed under: Leadership Development