“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.” – Dolly Parton
As a coach, I often get asked what the biggest challenge is for today’s leaders. My answer? Parenting. And I don’t mean the daily juggle of kids and work. I mean the challenge of dealing with five generations in the workplace, all parented in significantly different ways, with different perspectives, belief systems, life experiences and approaches to work. And when it comes to successfully supporting your emerging leaders on their leadership journey, understanding their unique generational characteristics is the key. You might even learn a few things along the way!
Whether explicitly or implicitly, your parents helped shape the person you are today. Their attitudes and expectations, the examples they set, the values they role modelled, the opportunities they provided. Whether you rallied against everything they stood for or are proud of who they helped you become, their influence is at the core of who you are. And today’s emerging leaders, brought up differently to the leaders tasked with supporting them, are defined by a very unique set of characteristics.
I’ve found that emerging leaders, who typically belong to Generation Y (Millennials) or late Generation Z, tend to be quite anxious and impatient. They’re ready to prove themselves, and want to be instantly rewarded when they do. They’re part of the most academically advanced generation in history and have an urgent need to be heard – but on the flip side, are often sheltered, lacking resilience and an understanding of consequences. They’re way more tech-savvy than their older counterparts (like me!) and limitlessly, wonderfully curious. They care deeply about diversity, sustainability and authenticity, demand flexibility and work-life balance, and won’t stand for a role that doesn’t give them real purpose.
Here’s how these defining characteristics can help you shape the support you provide to your emerging leaders.
1. Coach, don’t tell
“Show me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin.
Belonging to a generation that genuinely values individualisation and authenticity, emerging leaders don’t appreciate being given one-size-fits-all instructions that hark back to the good ol’ days. They want to be recognised for their strengths and learning styles and given the freedom to generate ideas and come up with their own solutions – it’s the best way to enhance their engagement and commitment. And by challenging your own assumptions about the right approach, staying curious and involving them throughout the process, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results… I guarantee you’ll learn something along the way too!
Emerging leaders also have a strong desire for continuous learning and growth – in fact, one recent study found that 74% of Millennial’s and Gen Z’s are likely to quit within the year due to a lack of skills development opportunities. And that’s why coaching, rather than instructing, is so perfectly aligned. By focusing on skill-building, critical thinking and problem-solving, coaching helps equip emerging leaders with the tools they need to stay agile and capable of tackling ever-evolving challenges. Not only does this capitalise on their unique preferences, it also cultivates a leadership pipeline that’s well prepared to navigate the complexities of the modern workplace.
2. Provide career missions, not ‘forever’ jobs
Today’s emerging leaders don’t have the same career expectations or aspirations that their more established counterparts did. Job mobility matters more than stability, and job opportunity matters more than security. Flexibility and progression are valued more than salary, and long-term job tenure just doesn’t have the appeal it used to. One study even suggests that young Australians will have a ‘portfolio career’, potentially experiencing 17 different jobs over five careers in their lifetime.
When you consider that the average cost of losing an employee is a staggering 33% of their annual salary, it’s time to change things up if you want to retain your emerging leaders. Which is exactly what a client of mine did a few years back when they began offering ‘career missions’ to their staff. These were mini commitments of 1 to 2 years (on a project or partnering with a client), with set expectations and transparent metrics for rewards and success. After the mission is complete, the employee is offered a renewal or another mission.
According to LinkedIn’s 2018 Workforce Learning Report, 94% of employees would stay at a company longer if it invested in their careers – and these mini career missions are a fantastic way of doing just that. If you can base these missions on the skills the business needs and your emerging leaders want, it’s a match made in heaven. And when you consider how portable skills are (training for 1 job gives you skills for 13 others), it seems a logical and mutually beneficial move.
Building the capacity of your emerging leaders in this way taps directly into their intrinsic motivation and produces much greater retention than any other incentive. It really is a win-win!
3. Don’t leave them to ‘sink or swim’
I remember (several years back!) starting in a new workplace and constantly feeling like I was being ‘tested’. Thrown in at the deep end, feeling completely adrift, always on a knife’s edge to make it through the probation period. That old school ‘sink or swim’ philosophy (along with a hefty dose of ‘good girl’ parenting) bred fear, people-pleasing and a crazy power imbalance – it’s an unhealthy style of leadership, and it just won’t work with this generation of emerging leaders.
That kind of volatile environment doesn’t provide the psychological safety – belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for sharing ideas, taking risks, asking questions or making mistakes – that emerging leaders crave. And psychological safety is, according to research from the likes of Project Aristotle, Gartner, Gallup and Harvard Business Review, the key to high performance. Bottom line? Supporting your emerging leaders by creating a ‘safe harbour’ where they can thrive isn’t just better for them, it’s better for your business too.
Your best approach with emerging leaders is to be clear with them about the mission they’ve been set, the expectations and the deliverables. Keep communication open and honest, give them time to get to know their role, and let them know how they’re contributing to the bigger picture. 72% of employees are driven by having purpose and meaning in their work, so this plays a huge part in helping to engage, motivate and retain your emerging leaders.
4. Teach them how to deal with change
As the famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, “Resisting change is like trying to hold your breath. Even if you’re successful, it won’t end well.”
Change is inevitable, and it’s one of the most requested topics in my coaching room at the moment. Some of the teams I’m working with are restructuring every 8 months, people are switching projects every 3-6 months, many businesses aren’t planning more than 12 months ahead. Helping your emerging leaders learn how to cope with rapid change, adapt quickly and prioritise ruthlessly is one of the best ways you can support them on their leadership journey.
Change leadership, or driving the necessary change within a company while minimising friction, is a huge area of growth for all of us. Being able to guide people through these shifts with clear communication and a clarity of purpose while maintaining team cohesion and connection is an incredibly valuable ability. And it’s an ability that established and emerging leaders can hone by working together to harness the power of their individual strengths.
Established leaders have the patience, experience, expertise and stakeholder and influencing skills that emerging leaders haven’t yet built, but are critical for leading through times of change. And emerging leaders, with less baggage, more dynamism and flexibility and innovative ways of doing things, can really help enhance the change leadership skills of their more established counterparts.
5. Help them establish and maintain their reputation
I hear a lot of talk about the importance of ‘building your brand’ – which is really just fancy marketing speak for ‘managing your reputation’. No matter what you call it though, there’s no doubt it’s important. Reputation is everything in business, because it directly influences your ability to make an impact – to lead, to inspire and to create positive change. It also helps you feel good about who you are and how you’re representing yourself.
Some ways you can help your emerging leaders develop the credibility, authority and trust they need to build a winning reputation include:
- Providing them with the opportunity to showcase their skills and expertise – whether that’s assigning high-impact projects, allowing them to lead cross-functional teams or giving them a platform to speak at important events.
- Walking the walk. Set an example by demonstrating ethical behaviour, humility and a commitment to the organisation’s values.
- Encouraging them to actively seek out feedback from others.
- Helping them build trusted networks, both on and offline, internal and external, and in formal and informal settings.
- Encouraging them to be curious about other people’s opinions and ideas.
- Teaching them to be aware of how they present when they’re around others (and how their actions might be perceived) – do they double-screen on calls, fidget, twirl their hair? Do others take those actions as an indication of how engaged they are?
- Helping them improve their communication style – do they say ‘ummm’ a lot (and consequently sound unsure)? Are they cutting people off to make a point? Could they pick up the phone and make a call to connect with a client or colleague (rather than ‘hiding behind’ email)?
Encourage the emerging leaders around you to think about what they really want to be known for, and help them intentionally and authentically define their reputation. When they’ve reflected on the strengths they have to offer, who they are and what they value, they can essentially shape the way they’re perceived by others and align to this through their actions. And that’s a great way to set the tone for their leadership journey!
A better way…
To support our emerging leaders, we first need to understand them. And while their unique generational characteristics mean they challenge many of the conventions and beliefs we grew up with, it’s not such a bad thing. Just because we ground our way through certain rites of passage, doesn’t mean it was the best way to do things – why should anyone work 12 hours a day, stuck in the office, rinse and repeat until retirement?
Instead of eye-rolling at the ‘entitlement of this generation’, let’s think about it. If they’re brave enough to ask for more than we dared to at their age, well… good on them. In this era of great change, the last thing we need to do is the same thing we’ve always done. As Henry Ford said, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got” – and who wants that, right?
What if, in supporting the next generation of leaders, we actually find a better way to do things? What if the best way can be found when we mentor, guide and share our wisdom, while our emerging leaders infuse their fresh perspectives and agility into reimagining the ‘way things are done’? What if, by not just passing the torch to the next generation of leaders, but working together with them, we shape a leadership legacy that transcends generations and creates a better future for all?
Now that’s the kind of legacy I’d like to leave.
If you’d like to learn how to better manage, lead and inspire your team, check out my ‘Manager to Leader Coaching Program’. It’s been designed to help you level up your leadership skills so you can build a more effective team culture, create team cohesion, drive productivity and empower your team to succeed. You can download a program flyer for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!