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On Your Mark. Get Set. LEAD!

By Randy Disharoon

Statistics Don’t Lie
The vast majority of today’s middle and upper management are Baby Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). Over the next 10 to 15 years, most of those positions will be vacated. The next generation to step up to leadership is the X Generation (those born between 1965 and 1980); however, the X Generation is relatively small in number and will not completely fill the void.

Enter the Millennial Generation. Already, “Millennials (those roughly 20-36 years old) make up the largest share of the U.S. workforce, about 34%, outnumbering both Generation Xers and Baby Boomers.” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, quoted in the Wall Street Journal, page B1, May 6, 2015)

It is inevitable that a large number of Millennials will enter the ranks of management and upper management a lot sooner than their predecessors. So, how will the Millennials respond to the challenge? How can they prepare themselves for those middle and upper management jobs while still in their 20’s or 30’s?

And how will those currently in upper management respond? Will they take the time to mentor the Millennials and pass the baton to this next generation of leaders?

A New Mindset.
If you are concerned that the Millennial Generation will not want to take on that challenge, think again. Most professional Millennials have an entrepreneurial spirit. They have come out into the workforce with a new mindset.

Long gone are the days of the mantra that younger workers must “pay their dues” before being promoted into management positions. Many of them will be asked to lead before many dues are paid at all.

Companies that embrace the drive and eagerness of this younger generation and steer them in the right direction will gain an advantage in the coming years. Gaining that advantage may require a different approach.

Unlike the Baby Boomers, who were influenced in their formative years by evidence and experts, Millennials are heavily influenced by their own experience and by their own peer group. Think about it this way. The worldview of a baby boomer versus that of a millennial is like the contrast between the advent of color TV and the advent of reality TV.

Millennials also learn differently. The classroom style of training, even with a cool overhead projector and Prezi format, is received with less enthusiasm than hands-on, multi-sensory and collaborative training. Companies that invest in training models that include one-on-one or small group mentoring along with hands-on, field-based instruction will yield a greater return on their investment.

Even work environment preferences are changing, from cubicle to café-style, from corner office to work stations. Many companies who have made such changes have claimed marked increases in creativity and productivity.

The Millennial generation is also influenced differently in buying decisions than its two preceding generations. Whereas baby boomers and Gen X’ers were sold on a product through mass or even targeted media, the Millennials now can find what they want when they want it. That is, 20-somethings don’t wait until Tuesday night to watch their favorite TV show. They stream it online when they are ready to watch it. The same can be said of how they make purchasing decisions in business.

Bridging the Gap.
But even if companies attract and train up this next generation of leaders, with a new training model and transformed workplace environment, retaining them will be even harder. “The median job tenure for workers aged 20-24 was shorter than 16 months. For those aged 25-34, it was three years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, still far short of the 5.5 year median tenure for all workers aged 25 and older.” (Wall Street Journal, Page B1, May 6, 2015)

Recruitment and retention of the best talent will be a key differentiator between companies in the next ten years. Many companies will turn to their Gen Xer’s to bridge the gap between the larger generations before and behind them, especially since they are less likely to leave for another company.

This middle generation could serve as the linchpin of sustained success for their companies. Gen Xer’s are in a unique position to draw on the strengths of the other two generations and steer their companies into a bright future.

It will also be important for those in Generation X to take on the mantle of responsibility to assist in mentoring and training the Millennials. As the business climate ushers in new and more complex challenges for companies to compete in an increasingly global market, cohesiveness, communication and collaboration within each organization will be critical.

But how will the Millennials fast track into leadership amidst all of the change? Succession planning will need to become a higher priority for many companies.

Learning to Lead.
Today, most companies have formal training programs for their employees. While most companies incorporate training on products and services, many do not have a system for capturing and passing on intellectual property or a robust leadership training program. Some companies need to develop and implement systems for extracting this knowledge and passing it on to the next generation of leaders.

Millennials will be given a golden opportunity to take the fast track to leadership. Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is quoted as saying, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” For Millennials today, they should be focused on growing themselves. In doing so, they would be well-served to possess three specific attributes:
1. Humility
2. Teachability
3. Promotability

Humility is not a weak attribute. One of the keys to being a good leader is to think of yourself less and others more. Good leaders learn how to ask good questions and how to listen well. In other words, they need to be a sponge. Protégés should speak in relative sized doses to their business experience. All remaining time should be spent listening. Humility leads to teachability.

Teachability facilitates learning, which develops knowledge, and knowledge builds confidence. When knowledge is appropriately applied with a healthy confidence over time, the result is wisdom. For those young leaders who display both humility and teachability, they will certainly earn the respect of their Baby Boomer and Generation X counterparts and be considered promotable.

Promotability is a natural progression from the first two attributes. Not everyone is interested in becoming a leader, but for those who are, promotability answers the question, “Does this person have the capacity to take on a significant role in the organization?

The companies that use a system of succession planning and choose to invest in the next generation of leadership will have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.

Start Now.
As the title of this article suggests, many Millennials will be thrust into leadership positions before they are able to get set. The good news is that this generation, more so than the two before it, is ready to take on the challenge. And why is this so?

The world we live in today is changing at a much more rapid pace than it did 20 years ago. The Millennial Generation is the first generation to know nothing other than instant information; that is, the internet and electronic media have accelerated their learning, agility and adaptability in constantly changing conditions.

Call it the “Rapid Life Effect (RLE),” where more of the experiences of life are happening at such a rapid pace that people at earlier ages are ready to take on more responsibility. We are seeing this effect in our world today – rookie quarterbacks starting in their first season in the NFL, recording artists cutting their first record at 15, and entrepreneurs starting and going public with their own companies with skyrocketing success while still in their teens.

For those in the twilight years of your career, with the reins of leadership in your hands, now is the time to invite the next generation leader to sit alongside you. You may invite that Generation X’er who has demonstrated loyalty and a successful track record. Or, it could be that Millennial who has a lot of upside potential.

Whichever the case, now is the time to bring them forward, show them the ropes, let them watch you in action, learn how you guide your company or department, and understand when and how you make decisions.

Then, put them on the fast track to leadership. Hand over the reins, watch them lead under their own power for awhile, assist and gently correct, until they are ready to go it alone. Then you can pass the baton to the next generation with confidence!