Companies expect a lot from their new Gen Y managers. Unfortunately, many are not adequately prepared for the challenge. Here’s what learning leaders can do to help.
August 29, 2014
We’ve been covering millennials’ takeover of the workplace for quite some time, but rarely have we discussed whether they’re ready for what’s next. According to Harvard Business Publishing, 50-60 percent of the management population is first-level managers, largely composed of millennials. In fact, according to a recent Deloitte study, nearly half of millennials (45 percent) are already in leadership roles. This was not the case for baby boomers or Generation X, who were less likely to serve in leadership positions at this age.
While many millennials are embracing these new responsibilities with open arms, that doesn’t mean they’re ready for them. According to a recent McKinsey survey, senior executives and nonexecutive managers are unhappy with the performance of their companies’ front-line managers. This points to a need to develop a broader set of skills and a more evolved mindset at an earlier stage in a manager’s career. I interviewed PJ Neal, senior product manager of programs, strategy and analytics for Harvard Business Publishing, to find out what leadership gaps exist for Gen Y and what learning leaders can do to help.
Let’s talk millennials as leaders. How are they being perceived?
Neal: When people talk about millennials as leaders, half use a question mark (millennials as leaders?) and the other half an exclamation mark (millennials as leaders!). The first half of those people — the ones who use the question mark — are still uncertain about millennials as colleagues, let alone as leaders. The second half of those people — the ones with the exclamation mark — get it. They see the value this generation can offer, the impact they’re already having and the potential they bring as leaders. Thankfully, we’re starting to see more exclamation marks and fewer question marks.
Regardless of if you’re in the question mark category or the exclamation mark category, millennials moving into leadership roles is something you’re facing in your organization today. Millennials are starting to fill the front-line manager ranks, which is a critical part of any organization. On average, your front-line managers comprise half of your management team, but they oversee 80 percent of your workforce. They are central to the success of your strategy, because they are the ones who are driving execution in your workforce.
In a recent Harvard Business Review blog post, John Kotter wrote that, “The notion that a few extraordinary people at the top can provide all the leadership needed today is ridiculous, and it’s a recipe for disaster.” He’s right. We need leadership at all levels, and we need people to be both managers and leaders simultaneously.
The front-line manager role is hard. If you look at all the employment surveys that are being done these days, you’re seeing a lot of common themes, including that individual contributors (who report to front-line managers) are increasing unengaged and overworked. A large percentage of employees are considering switching jobs at any given time. At the same time, front-line managers are being criticized for struggling with decision-making in team situations, lacking organizational savvy, not being strategic-enough thinkers and more.
I don’t doubt that any of that is true, but I would challenge people to ask if that’s a criticism of front-line managers in general, or if it’s about millennials, who simply happen to be filling those ranks right now. I think it’s about front-line managers, and I’d bet that these criticisms are similar to what members of the past several generations heard when they moved from being individual contributors to being managers for the first time. Someone probably said it about your CEO several decades ago. Being a millennial has nothing to do with it.
What skills do you think they already have, what skills do they need?
Neal: The most recent Global Human Capital Trends report from Deloitte Consulting, which is based on interviews with executives and HR professionals in organizations around the world, called out as a critical trend the “need to broaden, deepen and accelerate leadership development at all levels.” I couldn’t agree more.
When I think of leaders, I ask three questions: How well do they lead themselves? How well do they lead their team? And how well do they lead their business? I think those three buckets work at any level, all the way up to the CEO. They certainly work for the millennials who are stepping into leadership roles in organizations today. So let’s look at each of the three.
First: How well do they lead themselves? Are they agile? Do they continuously learn? Can they delegate to free themselves up? How well do they manage their time and their stress levels?
This generation, more so than any before it, is showing a dedication to managing their stress, and striving for a work-life balance that is appropriate for each of them. They’re also used to growing up in an environment with a lot of change in technology, communications and social relationships that has forced them to remain constantly agile and continuously learning. Where they struggle, not surprisingly, is in managing their time and delegating properly, which are interrelated for obvious reasons. Delegation is a skill that needs to be developed like any other, and most people struggle when they first find themselves in a position to be able to — and need to — delegate to their team. I think it’s a coachable skill, but one that we simply fail to coach people on.
Second: How well do they lead their team? It doesn’t matter if you have a team of two or a team of two thousand, you have to be able to lead them. Do you know the nuts and bolts of keeping a team aligned and working toward a common goal? Do you foster a sense of inclusion and create a diverse team? Can you manage team conflict? Do you know how to coach employees and give good feedback?
Millennials have grown up in a really global connected world, where learning about and experiencing far-off lands and different cultures is as easy as turning on the TV or firing up a web browser. I think they’re more open to diversity on their teams and among their colleagues, and as a result, are naturally more inclusive. They’re also comfortable with developing and nurturing relationships that exist over chat and IM, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and other social networks. That sets them up well for managing virtual teams, which are becoming more and more common. That said, they need to improve their coaching skills and learn the right techniques for giving good feedback. That’s essential, whether your team is in the same room with you or in different rooms hundreds of miles apart.
Interestingly, despite all their comfort communicating over the computer, there seems to be widespread discomfort with using the telephone. I can’t throw stones on that, though — for years, my voicemail message simply told people to send me an email instead!
Third: How well do they lead their business? Can you get everyone to execute against your goals or the goals you’ve been given? Can you align everyone? Can you make decisions, own them and help get everyone to understand why you decided what you decided? How well do you know all the basic business acumen topics (budgeting, finance, business cases, etc.)?
I can’t imagine a generation in the workplace today who are more comfortable with innovation and change than millennials. As I said earlier, they’ve lived a life of constant technological change, and this is the generation that coined the idea of the lean startup, so they’re already thinking about how to innovate, how to innovate cheaply and how to innovate fast, all while getting results in the marketplace. That doesn’t mean that your millennial workforce doesn’t need guidance on how your organization manages and vets innovation efforts, but that’s something that everyone in your organization needs to be successful, and to be successful in the right way.
For most millennials, they need to develop their business acumen skills, and that comes with practice and experience, as well as some formal training opportunities. As their breadth of responsibility increases in their career, so must their ability to manage the nuts and bolts of the business.
How should these skills be developed? Is there a way millennials learn leadership skills best?
Neal: So many organizations think the best way to train millennials or get them to develop skills is to ship them off to a class or a workshop for a few days. That does have some benefits, but it’s not going to give you the impact you want. To really see significant development and sustained performance increases, you need to think about creating a development effort that has learners do four things: Learn by doing, learn from reflection, learn from others, and finally, learn by teaching.
When I say learning by doing, I mean finding a way for your employees to integrate what they’re learning with their day-to-day work, and bring the results of those efforts back into your training program for discussion and analysis. This is a lot different from a role play exercise in a classroom, which tends to be artificial and is typically missing some real-life components, like having your direct reports staring at you across a table looking for direction while you make sure you’re doing something correctly. Find activities that people can do in their day-to-day job, that they can integrate into their daily lives, and that they can try out with their teams. Once they’ve given it a go, bring them back together and have them talk about what they experienced and what it was like. Some people will have done an amazing job, and others will have floundered. They can all learn from each other, and you get a really rich dialogue among the learners. As a bonus, they start to develop a learning network with their peers, so they have people to go talk to and get support from later, long after this development effort is completed.
The second point is learning from reflection. This goes hand-in-hand with learning by doing. Once someone learns something new, or tries out a new tool or activity with their teams, they need to spend some time thinking about what just happened, what went well, what didn’t go well, and what they’d do differently next time. They can do this in a learning journal, in their own note taking system, in a blog they make public, etc. It doesn’t seem to matter how they do it, so long as they do it. There’s been some researcharound this recently, including a working paper that was published in March by Giada Di Stefano at HEC Paris, Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano at Harvard, and Bradley Staats at UNC. They studied employees at Wipro, which is an organization that is known to invest heavily in employee development, and found that those employees who incorporated reflection as part of their learning saw a significant increase in their performance as a result. Think about that — an increase in performance through an activity that requires just a few minutes of time, and has zero cost.
The third point is learning from others. A component of learning from others is that classroom learning I mentioned earlier, or online programs, bringing in outside experts or senior executives from your organization, using videos, etc. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, because I think people get it. But I will point out what people are seeing really clearly in MOOCs, which is that lectures need to have an interactive component to have maximum impact. Short quizzes every 15 minutes, asking the audience for feedback or comments, activities with the person sitting next to you, etc. All of those things drive up attention rates and knowledge retention, not to mention helping to keep people’s eyes from wandering over to their smartphones or Outlook inboxes.
The last of the four parts — and I intentionally left it for last — is learning by teaching. It’s important to highlight wisdom from two of the great philosophers, Aristotle and Phil Collins. Aristotle said, “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.” A few years later, Phil Collins said, “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.” They’re both right. Having an individual teach a concept to another person helps them understand what about the concept they understand, and where they have gaps in their knowledge. They learn where they need to spend more time so they become a stronger performer. In the process of doing this, they also help their colleagues begin to think of them as a teacher, which is an important thing for a leader to be. And, this helps spread knowledge throughout their organization, which boosts everyone’s performance. I’m increasingly thinking that almost everything we do should have a component where the learner has to go out and teach the concept to three other people in their organization. It just has hugely positive benefits for everyone involved, and really increases the return on investment that the company has made in the learner’s development.