As members of the millennial generation shake free of stereotypes and mature into leadership positions, they are uniquely prepared to deal with the constantly changing business world. That's because, experts say, change is all they know.
By Michael J. O'Brien
Richard Wellins has a sobering thought for anyone born before 1980: On some not-too-distant day in the near future, the leader of every major corporation will be a millennial.
Indeed, the numbers seem to back up his assertion, as PwC estimates millennials will make up half of the entire global workforce by 2020. The Pew Research Center finds that in the United States, 83 million millennial workers are competing for top posts against 50 million Generation Xers and a rapidly retiring baby boomer segment.
"You can place bets on the diversity of senior leadership ranks by gender, color and country," says Wellins, senior vice president at Pittsburgh-based leadership consultancy Development Dimensions International Inc. "But it's a sure bet they will all be millennials."
In an effort to better understand this rising generation's impact on the C-suites of the future, DDI teamed up with The Conference Board and RW2 Enterprises to explore the leadership perspectives of current-day C-suite executives and millennial leaders in a report titled Divergent Views/Common Ground. The report is based on interviews, surveys and data analysis at 14 large corporations.
Amid this generational shift, experts say, HR will play a unique role in the coming years, not only because the function will be tasked with executing a strategy created by a millennial-stacked C-suite, but also because the CHRO will likely be a millennial as well.
"As [millennials] will be a significant percentage of the C-suite in the coming decade," the reports states, "it is imperative to better understand the views and values of millennial leaders and to ensure that existing C-suite leaders, composed of several generational cohorts including millennial leaders, appreciate both the areas of divergent thinking and the common ground that exist among leaders."
A failure to fully understand the areas of divergence, the report states, could put organizations in a perilous position by forcing their current and future leaders into "a collision course."
"Top leaders will groom and promote leaders who match their management-centric profile, while millennial leaders will develop themselves toward an interpersonally focused profile," the report concludes. "Over time, this will create further disconnects between the two groups, generating tension for advancing leaders caught in the middle."
The Future Is Now
One company that has been busy embracing the millennial generation is Accenture, the Dublin, Ireland-based professional-services company that employs more than 400,000 workers worldwide.
"In 2015, we hired more than 90,000 millennials," says Ellyn Shook, Accenture's chief leadership and HR officer. "We are living in that future world now," she says, adding that the company expects to be 75-percent millennial by 2025.
In an effort to stay ahead of the generational curve, Shook says, the company is surveying its "next-generation leaders" about their expectations for leadership characteristics in the digital age.
"One thing that is really interesting and differentiating and highly valued by next-gen leaders," she says, "is that they understand the importance of collaborating across an ecosystem. Leaders of today have come from a hierarchical background, while millennial leaders understand you need to collaborate through the entire ecosystem.
"Even more importantly," Shook continues, "if you start to think about the workforce, you're going to have to be able to collaborate in a more boundary-less way. That's something millennials have spotted clearly and are really comfortable operating in that environment."
Millennial HR leaders, Shook says, are going to have to look at talent practices in a very different way than previous generations did, in part because of the rise of the gig economy, or what Accenture calls "the liquid workforce."
"We found a shockingly high number of people we surveyed around the world who viewed their work as independent of an organization," she says. "I think with that value increasing, millennials inherently understand that, in order to tap into the best talent, you have to be open to where those sources are."
Bruce Tulgan, an author and founder of Rainmaker Thinking, a New Haven, Conn.-based consultancy, agrees and thinks millennial HR leaders will be particularly comfortable working without boundaries.
"Millennials are going to have a more natural fit with the boundary-less work environment and all of these issues of knowledge transfer and increased flexibility and diversity," he says. "This is the work of the business ahead of us, and it's not going to mean it will be easier, but they are more naturally wired to embrace these challenges. Older workers may feel their whole world is changing, whereas with millennials, they've never known it any other way."
The Empowerment Myth
"Empowering employees" may be a widely used catchphrase in the business world these days, but the Divergent Views report finds a demographic gap in the importance that different generations place on giving employees the ability to work as they see fit.
When millennials were asked to describe their prototypical leader, they said he or she would be "an inspiring coach, a compelling communicator, and one who infuses an intercultural perspective into every action," according to the report.
As one millennial leader focus-group participant said, "You don't tell people what to do, you empower them."
That viewpoint contrasts sharply with current CEOs' descriptions of an ideal leader, as someone who "focuses less on interpersonal influence and more on efficient decision-making and business savvy."
Because millennials have been raised in an era of positive tolerance, Tulgan says, with an aspirational idea that all styles are equally valid, and due to the profound diversity they were raised in, they are especially vulnerable to management pitfalls such as "falling for the myth" of empowerment.
"The idea of a self-managed team is great," he says. "But it's a fiction. It's just not the case that teams function without leadership -- a team without an official leader will still have leaders emerge."
The only question is who will fill that unofficial role, he says.
"Sometimes it is the strongest, sometimes the most committed, sometimes the most qualified. Sometimes it is a ringleader who emerges. Sometimes there are competing ringleaders, and then cliques form and then conflict ensues. The best case is having clear roles and clear lines of responsibility and authority -- with clear expectations and clear communication every step of the way."
While there are indeed differences in the ways millennial leaders and CEOs see things, the Divergent Views report shows four corporate imperatives -- representing ethics, profitability, stakeholder needs and environment -- got nearly identical importance ratings by both groups. And the commonalities don't end there.
"I think a lot of the same leadership traits will be important" to both current CEOs and the next generation of leaders, says Shook, "including inspiring people and creating a sense of purpose."
It's a sentiment that Jonathan Flickinger, a "first-decade millennial" and one of last year's HR's Rising Stars, would surely agree with.
"Past generations put their blood, sweat and tears into serving others, and we will, too," says Flickinger, who is currently an HR manager at Shaft Drillers International in Pittsburgh. "The dreams we have for our children will look different, but the same innate hope and faith that they will succeed will remain. We will take that with us to work every day."
Millennial leaders will continue to invest in their people, Flickinger says, because they "know that if they don't, employees will leave and find somewhere that will invest in them."
And Dan Schawbel, an author and research director for Future Workplace who often speaks on the topic of his generation, says millennials are actually much more "old-school" than "new-school" when it comes to communication.
"In-person communication will still be desired regardless of age or generation," he says. And despite their penchant for flexibility in work options, he says, millennial leaders will not bring an end to working in an actual bricks-and-mortar office building.
"Corporate offices are still going to be around," he says. "That's not going to change."
It's what's going on inside those buildings -- particularly in the HR offices -- that will be different from past generations, Schawbel says.
"Millennial HR leaders are going to be more strategic and less administrative," he says. "So much will be outsourced by then that millennials will spend more time being strategic, creating a strong employer brand and helping HR be even more of a business adviser than before.
HR is not going to be siloed in the future, he adds, because that's not how millennials work.
"Every aspect of the organization needs to be incorporated into making the right kinds of experiences for workers," he says.
The More Things Change
So will millennials fare better or worse than previous generations when they reach the highest rungs of the corporate ladder?
"It's hard to say, but they will be very different," says Shook. "Their emphasis on emotional intelligence will be one of their standout traits, because the more digital the world becomes, the more human connection becomes important. Millennials recognize that and it will be transformative for organizations and for people."
Meanwhile, Elease Wright, a co-author of the Divergent Views report and consultant with RW2 Enterprises, says it shows that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
"We are of a mind that this generation has more in common and less that is distinctly different from previous generations," she says, adding that most differences the report highlights are attributable to life stage, as opposed to inherent generational differences.
She also dismisses any negative stereotypes elders have attached to millennials.
"Everyone talked down about the next generation," she says, "all the way back to the ancient Greeks."