Defining millennial leadership

This article was originally published in The Hamilton Spectator, November 18, 2015.

Classic leadership principles still have a place in the workplace, but millennial leaders must learn how to apply them in a diverse and multi-generational environment.

Millennials are today growing into leadership roles. The under 35 crowd represented close to 37 per cent of the workforce in 2014, making them the largest generation in the Canadian workforce, reports Canadian Business. Those born between 1981-1995 (ages 20-35) are the fastest growing segment in Canada’s workforce. On a global scale, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that millennials will represent 75 per cent of the workforce worldwide by 2025.

Research from the Canadian Management Centre, a talent development company, found that the eldest of the generation have been in the workforce for at least 10 years, with many already in leadership positions. As young leaders, millennials have at their disposal many leadership books offering tried and tested leadership tips and principles. Whether it is about political strategy (The Art of War), self-help (How to Win Friends and Influence People) or just learning to be an effective worker (The 4-hour Workweek), many of classic leadership tips outlined in these books still hold true in today’s workforce. Leaders are still expected to practice what they preach, have strong emotional intelligence, motivate their team, communicate and listen well.

While these evergreen leadership principles should be a part of any leader’s tool kit, millennial leaders must learn to apply them in new environments. The working world is changing. Technology has made it easy for employees to work in different locations, from home and even while on vacation. While this degree of flexibility varies between each industry, employees have more freedom in how they want to structure their work day. In turn, they are faced with a greater responsibility to keep track of their work and deliverables.

In addition to a mobile workplace, the office setup is also changing. Many organizations are adopting an open concept workplace, removing cubicles and individual rooms to encourage collaboration. Some have questioned whether collaboration exists as a result of an open concept workplace. Nevertheless, this transformation breaks down silos and encourages employees to think of their workplace as one unified entity.

As the workplace environment changes, so have employees. Today’s workforce is diverse and multi-generational, with up to five generations working side by side. As a result, millennial leaders have to adapt their communication style to relate to and understand employees of all ages. They will need to cultivate a more inclusive leadership by actively seeking out people with different skill sets, backgrounds and opinions.

A millennial leader is a 360-degree leader who must be aware that their leadership is judged and perceived at all angles, off-line and online. Any misalignment can hurt their reputation. This means that there is a fine line between one’s personal and professional life. Personal opinions and images have to be carefully considered before sharing them online. While restrictive, it also presents opportunities for millennial leaders to take control of their online presence and exercise transparency. Utilizing digital tools, millennial leaders can craft a strong reputation and personal brand for themselves, build credibility and trust.

Most importantly, millennial leaders must realize that their talents and skills as an individual contributor do not necessarily translate to success in a leadership role. As Marshall Goldsmith says, “what got you here won’t get you there.” Like being a freshman in university, the transition to be a leader starts afresh. This means doing things that you are not comfortable with, whether it be interviewing, managing, hiring or firing. “Lead anyway,” as millennial workplace expert Lindsey Pollak suggests. New millennial leaders must know that leadership is a journey and practice. By exercising their leadership muscles, millennials will find the confidence to lead at the very best level they can.