HR Disruption: A generation set up for failure?

by 03 Feb 2017
We’ve now moved firmly into an era in which millennials are taking on the responsibility of managing people. 

The problem is their predecessors haven’t given serious consideration to the unique ways millennials learn, adapt and grow as professionals, and consequently are not arming them with the critical leadership capabilities that ensure future sustainability of an organisation.

I see it everywhere: senior leaders taking a page from the old textbook, ‘How to manage and grow a workforce’. But this advice simply doesn’t work any more for the 6.1 million millennials in the workforce today. How scary to think we are potentially missing easy opportunities to engage this segment of future leaders.

Having spent a significant portion of my career both managing a team of millennials and learning about their needs, it has become apparent to me that this old way of developing our future leaders doesn’t develop leaders any more. To get some perspective let’s look at the trends Gen Y bring with them:
  • Millennials typically have itchy feet and tend not to stay in a position longer than two to three years maximum.
  • They like to work in sprints – short projects with rotating teams increase their productivity and engagement. You’ll notice that emergent leaders will feel compelled to solve a problem presented through a project and then retreat to being part of the team once the problem they noticed is solved.
  • They prefer a leader who is involved and inclusive, a mentor and a coach, as well as a friend. Someone who is accessible, not hierarchical. Someone who genuinely cares about them as a whole person – not just during their working hours.
  • They need immediate feedback on their performance. They want it straight after a milestone is achieved. They are natives of the digital world, which has propelled the art of instant feedback.
  • They are driven by their core values, which anchor their every decision. This seems to be instilled by a great relationship with their parents, who tend to be the key influencers in their decision-making.
  • They enjoy a challenge, they like to be constantly stimulated, and they aren’t afraid to stretch themselves out of their comfort zone – especially when the project has impact.
So, with all these trends in mind, the challenge now is how do you grow leaders who typically don’t spend very long in a single role or with one employer? What strategies do you need to implement to fulfi l their need to feel challenged and learn best on the job? And how do you factor in their care about impact, not status and titles?

How you incorporate all of this into a journey that develops leaders for the future will determine the long-term success and stability of your organisation.

It starts with managers of managers
Typically, promotion and therefore, by default, succession planning rewards bottom-line results. Type A personalities that are quite driven, fearless, competitive and focused do  exceptionally well as individual contributors rising through the ranks because they are as goal driven with their careers as they are with their KPIs. They get noticed, they openly ask for a promotion, and they are seen as natural leaders over and above those who seem ‘too emotional’.

I will admit that, as a young saleswoman at Google who loved to smash through every target handed to me, I was that person. Before I knew it I had a team and was expected to teach them the tips and tricks that I knew instinctively. The problem was I was never equipped to coach, and as a result I faltered ... badly.

How can managers of managers play a crucial role?
  1. Pay attention to how your superstars are achieving their KPIs. Are they collaborative? Are they inclusive? Do they ask for feedback from their teammates as well as from you? Are they helping their team towards achieving their collective goals? Rewarding the how as much if not more than the what through your competency and behaviour frameworks will by default get the right future leaders into the next leadership layer.
  2. Support your new managers with learning the art of coaching. This is a new skill that typically only gets taught after an individual contributor becomes a manager, and is crucial to their success and the success of their team. Be the meta-coach.
Deconstructing leadership learning
This is a challenge! And it will require investment of time and the support of a good internal or external learning and development business partner, but the investment will pay off.

Within everyday workplace teams, projects and initiatives, there exist golden opportunities to learn valuable leadership lessons. This all starts with a) identifying the learning opportunity, b) keeping the right tools, principles and techniques at your fingertips to match the scenario at hand, c) having the guidance of an experienced facilitator who allows the team time to stop, reflect, give feedback and experiment.

I don’t think leadership programs will entirely be replaced by this approach; however, the tools and principles that lie within them can be deconstructed into bite-size, easy-to-use downloadables, facilitator guides and ‘how to’ videos that can be used within the life cycle of any project or initiative.

Capitalising on the learning opportunities within everyday business projects will mean a richer experience for all involved and potentially less time and money spent on formal leadership learning courses. Ultimately, the ramp-up time to upskill future leaders will be significantly  shorter, coinciding with the trends of millennials and their itchy feet!
PS An interesting side effect will be more ROI for your L&D budget.


Hiam Sakakini is the co-founder of Think Change Grow and is the former head of leadership development at Google APAC. During 14-plus years of working in Fortune to help individuals and teams build the skills, confidence and competence needed to become genuinely customer-focused and deliver outstanding bottom-line business results. Visit thinkchangegrow.com. 500 companies in a range of roles, Hiam has developed a passion for pinpointing the simplest strategies.