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Coaching millennials has its hurdles—and it's time to get over them

Leadership programs for millennials, management, and senior executives at MIT Sloan Executive Education

Today's workforce is a mix of four generations—Veterans, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y—sometimes collaborating, other times colliding. Stereotypes for how these different age groups act, interact, and conduct themselves in the workplace are plentiful, but most would agree that Gen Y—the millennials—are currently, for better or worse, the center of attention. Why all the commotion?

For starters, millennials have officially surpassed Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation, according to population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau. Millennials, typically defined as those ages 19-35 in 2016 (born 1981-1997), are now 75 million strong.

But most importantly, Millennials will soon lead the world of business, and after them their successors, Gen Z. They will be leading in a world that has grown increasingly global, complex, and even tumultuous. Today’s business world requires more of leaders than ever before. MIT Sloan Professor John Van Maanen, an organizational theorist, uses an acronym to describe this world of which millennials will be at the helm: VUCCA. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, chaotic and ambiguous (with one more C than the more common VUCA), and it's a big part of why today's leaders need to teach tomorrow's.

"We don't know where big data is taking us. We don't know what's happening with climate change, political instability. It is an unknown world," Van Maanen said during a panel discussion on leadership at the MIT Sloan CFO Summit last fall. It’s evident that teaching leadership skills is critical in a changing world, but coaching Millennials comes with a set of unique challenges.

  1. Millennials are moving targets for training. “Millennials expect to work for 12 to 15 organizations over their careers, versus three or four 20 years ago,” Van Maanen said (see Gallup for more).
  2. Leadership is becoming more and more distributed. Many organizations’ hierarchical structures are flattening. Companies are becoming more flexible and diverse, with employees working from around the world. When there are technically no titles and no bosses, everyone needs to step up and be the leader. Also, leadership lessons that work in the U.S. or Europe might not apply as easily in countries that have been through political or cultural upheaval, have different cultural norms, or use technology to a different or lesser extent.
  3. Millennials are often misunderstood. This younger generation has a different way of working, one that is often misconstrued as unproductive. In a recent New York Times article, a young millennial lamented being scolded for texting during a meeting, when he was in fact taking prodigious notes on his phone. Recent research by MIT Sloan’s Catherine Turco looks at how companies can rethink their bureaucratic leanings in order to navigate today’s rapidly changing cultural climate and better adapt in the age of persistent connectivity and, in particular, social media.
  4. Soft skills may be lacking. While millennial employees are often leaps and bounds ahead of other generations in their technical skills—and their ability to grow those skills rapidly—they are often lacking in soft skills, like communication and problem solving. A study conducted by Development Dimensions International found that for every $1,100 invested in soft skills training, employers earned an average return of $4,000. An investment in soft skills training is a worthwhile investment for any organization.
  5. Leadership means different things to different generations. Gen Y professionals want to feel empowered to lead, regardless of their title—most millennials don't view titles as a determination of leadership. It’s important to understand what leadership means to young workers, and provide them with the tools they need so they can leverage their desire to make an impact.

Of course, a key requirement for cultivating the next generation of effective, principled leaders is to model the leadership we hope to impart. “Unfortunately, this world is rife with poor leaders,” says Van Maanen. “There are accountants who look the other way, doctors who prescribe antibiotics for common colds when they know very well that antibiotics have no effect.” In order to teach leadership, we also have to act the part.

If you, your colleagues, or your millennial employees are seeking leadership development programs that fit with busy schedules, you may be interested in learning more about these short courses at MIT Sloan Executive Education.

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